Novak Djokovic officially won the 2021 Australian Open on Sunday against Daniil Medvedev. However, much as Noami Osaka truly won her Australian Open by coming back from 3-5 down in the third against Garbine Muguruza — the most important 15 minutes of the women’s fortnight in Melbourne — Djokovic truly won this championship when he fought back from third- and fourth-set deficits to beat Alexander Zverev in the quarterfinals… and when he carried his body through the fifth set against Taylor Fritz… and when he nursed himself through an uncertainty-filled fourth-round match versus Milos Raonic.
When a clearly ailing Djokovic finished the Fritz match, fears about Djokovic’s health status emerged. They were, however, only fears, and not confirmed diagnoses. As long as Djokovic could take the court, he could listen to his body and figure out how to guide that body through matches.
For a few days, Djokovic was not in the best position to win longer rallies. Normally, he thrives in that context, but with his body barking and still being in a degree of pain, Djokovic knew he would have to lean on his serve and a more attacking game to win points quickly and minimize strain.
That’s exactly what he did.
In the middle stretch of this tournament — from the Fritz through Zverev matches — Djokovic’s task wasn’t to dominate or look good. It was to survive. He got to the other side in his semifinal versus Aslan Karatsev. He played that match — by his own words — without pain. A pain-free Djokovic is the best player in tennis, and that’s the man we saw against Medvedev in a lopsided final.
The demonstrations of survival most centrally won this tournament for Djokovic, who clearly listened to the sports psychologist John Lennon and his song, “Whatever Gets You Through the Night”:
That’s what this Australian Open was all about: not getting through Week 1 in order to rise in Week 2, not establishing certain tactics in one round to set up an opponent in the next round. No, this was solely about managing the body within one match to earn the chance to get 48 more hours in which Ulises Badio and the rest of his team could help his body bounce back for the next match. Sasa Ozmo wrote and reported a tremendous story about Ulises Badio. Do give it a read.
If we are to compare this Djokovic championship to a previous tennis major, the example which immediately comes to mind is Roger Federer’s 2012 Wimbledon title.
Remember Federer going off court for back pain on a cold and miserable Manic Monday at that tournament? At 5-6 in the first set against Xavier Malisse, Federer required treatment. He reemerged from the inner halls behind Centre Court and hit groundstrokes with the flat, no-pace style of Bernard Tomic. He somehow broke Malisse to force a first-set tiebreaker, which he won. He willed his body through that four-set match. He survived.
Mikhail Youzhny offered no resistance in the quarterfinals, with Federer wearing a compression shirt under his white shirt to manage his back. By the time Federer arrived at the semifinal round against Djokovic, his back was a lot better. The pain had subsided. By surviving on the days when survival was all he needed to do, Federer gave himself — and his body, and his team — a chance to recover. He did, and a few days later, he had his seventh Wimbledon title.
This fortnight by Djokovic is noticeably similar. Djokovic got through the scary matches, got through the pain, got through the worst of what his body presented to him, got through the daunting scoreboard situations against Zverev. Once he had done all that and Ulises Badio gave him the ability to reduce pain, the final two rounds were a walk in the park.
Djokovic — battling back from his disqualification at the U.S. Open and his loss to Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros — had restored order, carried the banner for the Big 3 once again, and had claimed his 18th major, his ninth in Australia.
Whatever Gets You Through The Night — it’s all right, it’s all right.
Coach John Lennon knew what he was talking about. Novak Djokovic and Ulises Badio both listened.