There was a moment during the 2023 Australian Open final that gave a glimpse into the challenge – both physical and mental – of facing Novak Djokovic.
After breaking for the first time in the match at the start of the third set, Stefanos Tsitsipas is faced with 30-30 in the next game.
He does everything right; pulls Djokovic across into the tramlines with his shot off the return and then drills a backhand down the line with his next. Looking at a still picture of when Tsitsipas unleashes the shot it seems impossible that Djokovic will retrieve the ball, it looks more likely he won’t even move for it and will watch it fly past for a winner.Australian OpenDjokovic's game 'undoubtedly most complete on circuit' says Toni Nadal7 HOURS AGO
But this is Djokovic. He doesn’t just move for it, he reaches it and returns it, almost doing the splits in an incredible display of flexibility as he lunges for the ball well behind the baseline.
Still the point should be won by Tsitsipas. Djokovic's return lands in the middle of the court for him to put away. But perhaps with the previous shot and Djokovic’s immense retrieving skills in mind Tsitsipas puts a bit more on his forehand, looking to ensure this one doesn’t come back.
It doesn’t come back, but only because Djokovic doesn’t need to chase this shot down: it goes wide.
Tsitsipas admonishes himself, swearing several times in anger as he possibly thinks over what he should have done differently to win the point.
But it’s not just Djokovic’s amazing athleticism and speed that have made him so hard to beat at the Australian Open, where he is now a 10-time champion and has won his last 28 matches in a row. He showed in Melbourne that he is a master in all areas of the game.
Wrecker of gameplans
Tommy Paul gave some of the most informative insight into the enormous challenge of facing Djokovic after their semi-final meeting.
As Paul was routinely beaten in straight sets there were questions about why he didn’t try something different, why didn’t he get into the net more and look to get on the front foot, instead of taking on the seemingly impossible task of beating Djokovic from the baseline?
Turns out it’s not that simple.
“I wanted to serve and volley some. I didn’t serve and volley once,” reflected Paul afterwards about his shredded gameplan.
“When I did make my first serve, I felt like he was returning it to the baseline. I was automatically on defence. Like, you get down 0-30 in your service games, it’s hard to be like, ‘All right, I’m going to serve and volley now’.
“I wanted to throw in drop shots. Didn’t get an opportunity to do any of that because he was hitting so deep. I wanted to change up pace with my slice. Missed my first three slices of the match. I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to start hitting my backhand; I’m not slicing well today.’
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“Attack on the second serve. He definitely surprised me. On big points, he was going big on second serves. Pretty much every point, the average second-serve speed was a little higher than I thought it was going to be.
“I mean, he didn’t let me do all those things, because of things that he did so well.”
And there’s also this: “It felt like things were getting away from me really fast. It felt like points were moving really fast. In-between-points time was going really quick.”
So the original gameplan goes out the window because Djokovic is hitting so deep it makes it difficult to get into the net or do anything but rally. Then you have to think on your feet and try and come up with a new plan, while also focusing on playing well enough to stay in the match against one of the greatest players of all time.
Alex de Minaur had a gameplan in the fourth round too.
With Djokovic bothered by a hamstring injury in his first few matches, De Minaur, whose stamina is up there with the best, planned to “get him moving, really test where he's at”.
Djokovic ran out a clear winner for the loss of just five games.
“Yeah, didn't get much joy out of it,” said a deflated De Minaur afterwards, while admitting Djokovic was simply on “another level”.
Serving up a storm
Djokovic’s forehand was an area that drew strong praise from his coach Goran Ivanisevic after the final.
“He stepped up and he was smacking forehands unbelievable. Really probably the best two weeks of forehands that I ever saw from him in his life. I mean, I never saw him hitting better forehands before. He was really going for it.”
The numbers back up Ivanisevic’s glowing assessment.
Over the course of the tournament Djokovic relied on his forehand far more than his backhand, hitting 111 winners from the former and just 38 on the backhand. In the final Djokovic hit 14 groundstroke winners from his forehand side and only five from his backhand. The unforced error count was also much higher on the backhand side than on Djokovic’s forehand.
But if Djokovic’s backhand was a weakness (statistically speaking) then the difficulty for opponents is getting to it. Djokovic has the skill to control points so expertly from the baseline and also now has a much-improved serve that can quickly put him on the front foot.
Ivanisevic deserves plenty of credit for that.
Ivanisevic was a big server himself in his playing days and under his guidance Djokovic’s service motion appears smoother and the outcome more reliable. It’s not Djokovic’s biggest weapon but it’s quick, precise, and difficult to win points against.
In the final, Djokovic started by making 72% of his first serves in the opening set and won an incredible 17 of 18 points behind his first serve. He finished the match with a first-serve win rate of 82%, and 62% on his second serve, against 51% from Tsitsipas.
“At the beginning of his career, the serve was a weakness in his game,” explained Djokovic’s former coach Boris Becker. “But he has understood over the years that the serve is important, and has also worked on improving it – and now it is his strength.”
Return game as good as ever
It wasn’t just De Minaur and Paul who were dispatched in swift fashion by Djokovic, fifth seed Andrey Rublev also went the same way in the quarter-finals.
Rublev has a bigger game than De Minaur but still found himself lacking an outstanding shot to hurt Djokovic.
"I’m not sure what style would bother him today,” said Eurosport expert Mats Wilander after watching Djokovic cruise past Rublev.
“You’ve got to throw in someone like a John Isner or someone to maybe throw him off the game, a huge server. Or a Nick Kyrgios serve, and you can hold serve and stay with him.”
But even if he had faced a rocket server, Djokovic’s unrivalled return skills looked as good as ever in Melbourne.
Over the tournament he won 163 return points in seven matches. Tsitsipas finished with 132. In the final Djokovic won 34 return points vs 22 for Tsitsipas. And even though Tsitsipas doesn't have the biggest serve in the game, it was still described by Wilander as a "huge weapon" during the tournament.
'I thought I had seen everything'
Remember that Djokovic came into the Australian Open with an injury? A hamstring injury that was so bad, according to Ivanisevic, that most players wouldn’t have even played the tournament.
"I will not say 100%, but 97% of the players when you get the results of the MRI you go straight to the referee's office and pull out. But not him. He's from a different species,” said Ivanisevic after the final.
Not only was there the injury to deal with, but the emotional baggage from everything that happened last year over his eventual deportation, and then the flag incident involving his father after the quarter-finals, which Djokovic said impacted him.
“Of course, it's not pleasant for me to go through this with all the things that I had to deal with last year and this year in Australia. It's not something that I want or need...It has got to me, of course, as well.”
Yet if Djokovic’s mind was distracted at all by events off the court, it didn’t show in his performances. He was relentless throughout and only gave a glimpse into everything he was carrying when his emotions were let loose with his team after the final.
“The guy is unbelievable,” reflected Ivanisevic. “I don't know how to describe him. I thought I had seen everything, but then I see this…unbelievable.”
How to beat a player with such focus and determination, to go with such incredible physical skills? And on a court where even he admits he has built up a reputation for never being out.
“Statistically, I've managed to win more matches where I was down and that's why I think there's probably an aura, you know, that people talk about me in that way,” he said in the second week.
“That is great because it also sort of serves as kind of a little advantage over…my opponent knowing that when he's in front that he's still not done yet with me, that he has to play to the last shot.”
As Tsitsipas found out, playing that last shot against Djokovic is not easy.
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