By Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent
Had Daniil Medvedev won the 2021 Australian Open, he would have become the World No. 2. It would have been the first time since Lleyton Hewitt in 2005 that someone outside of the Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic group would have achieved the feat.
But as much as the Russian tried to keep himself within reach of the first objective — so as to put himself closer to the second — the farther it slipped away. It became a daydream.
The man across the net – Djokovic – had done exactly what he said he would do to his opponent if the latter wanted to win:
“I’m not going to stand here and hand it over to them,” Djokovic said. “I’m going to make them work their ass off for that.”
Djokovic and Medvedev were dead serious when entering the court. But when the play began, it was the defending champion who transferred that serious appearance to his game. Djokovic had come prepared to make Medvedev play. He was the one who posed questions to the Russian’s tactical acumen, and he was the one who came with the answers to anything his opponent did. More importantly, Djokovic’s intensity was such that where Medvedev played his heart out, Djokovic poured his heart, body AND soul into each game.
There were moments when this intensity flagged and Djokovic’s game came up short against the high bar he had set up. He briefly gave his opponent room to give himself a chance in the match. Yet, the constancy with which Djokovic toyed with Medvedev until he had regained his equilibrium made it a one-way contest even in those lulls in the proceedings.
This trait of the World No. 1, of making his opponent work harder to win points, even when visibly zoning out of a match, is the transformation he has wrought in himself since returning to the tour after his slump in 2016 – after his French Open win – and in 2017-18, following injuries.
For stretches on end, in 2011 and between 2014-16, it seemed as though Djokovic had forgotten how to lose even as his rivals stumbled in trying to tame him. He was the epitome of supremacy on the court.
Since 2017-18, this superlative quality – this on-court lethality – hasn’t been the primary chord that has resonated in Djokovic’s game. That said, he’s had plenty of wins and titles, even majors, including his 18th at Melbourne Park.
Alongside this contrast in Djokovic’s results, there’s also been a difference in how they were – and are – perceived. Before, the manner in which his victories came about was just as important as the results themselves. In these latter years, only the results have taken precedence.
Accepting this new reality took time not only for the audiences watching Djokovic, but also for the player himself. In his press conference after his win over Medvedev, Djokovic acknowledged how tough it had been for him to weather the choppiness of these years, and how he’s grown as a player through these adversities.
“When you’re a young player, 99.9% of kids want to win a major. I try to remind myself how important this is even though I’ve been fortunate to win many. I do enjoy the success every single time even more cause the longer the time passed, the harder it’s going to get,” he said.
Djokovic’s words also showed that while it was a circumstantial imposition for him to escape the habits to which he’d become accustomed, the 33-year-old didn’t take long to become adept in adapting to these modifications. Likewise, if the perfection of Djokovic’s performances made him a less relatable demi-god, the fallibility that emerges in his on-court showings these days has made him more relatable as a champion.
Getting humanized in this way was also a rite of passage the two other members of the “Big Three” – Federer and Nadal – endured and came through. In Djokovic now making this three for three, the “Big Three” have, as a result, separated themselves from the rest of the playing order even as the competitive gap among them has noticeably narrowed.
The ever-so-observant Djokovic, while defending his Down Under domain against the NextGen, was quick to take note of this outcome.
“Roger and Rafa inspire me. I think as long as they go, I’ll go. I think in a way it’s, like, a race who plays tennis more and who wins more. It’s a competition between us in all areas. But I think that’s the very reason why we are who we are because we do drive each other, we motivate each other, we push each other to the limit,” Djokovic said in his press conference.
In raising a chapeau to his rivals, the Serbian deftly reaffirmed his singlemindedness to surpass them thoroughly. It was also a nuanced reminder that two months into the 2021 season, they were the ones playing catch-up to him, despite their lead over him in the major title count.