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First came the show of strength, then the cascade of tears. Over the years, we have seen Novak Djokovic celebrate Grand Slam title wins by ripping his shirt, punching the air or chewing on blades of the Wimbledon grass. On Sunday, after he won the Australian Open for the tenth time, Djokovic climbed up to his player box, hugged his family and just collapsed on the floor while sobbing inconsolably. The emotional dam he had built to block out the events of 12 months ago and the adversities in the last two weeks had seemingly burst open.
“This probably is the biggest victory in my life... considering the circumstances," said Djokovic after defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-5 (5) in the final. It was his 22nd Grand Slam overall. The stirring, though expected, result, wrapped up an emotionally charged Australian Open that saw Aryna Sabalenka win her first major and Sania Mirza play her last Slam.
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While Sabalenka conquered Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina and her demons in the final to capture the Australian Open, Indian trailblazer Mirza said goodbye to Grand Slams on one of the grandest stages in the sport. Partnering Rohan Bopanna, Mirza made it to the mixed doubles final, but couldn’t quite claim the fairytale finish.
Mind over matter
A year ago, Djokovic had been deported from Australia on the eve of his most successful major due to his Covid vaccination status. On his return to the country this year, Djokovic suffered a hamstring injury during the tune-up event in Adelaide and seemed bothered by it in the opening week of the Australian Open. With some people accusing him of feigning injury, the Serb shot back at the double standards.
“Only my injuries are questioned. When some other players are injured, then they are the victims, but when it is me, I am faking it," he said. The spotlight shifted off-court as his father was pictured with fans carrying Russian flags. While Djokovic defended it, saying the Russian fans had ambushed him, Srdjan Djokovic did not attend the final at the Rod Laver Arena. “In dealing with an injury, things happening off the court, as well, that could easily have been a big disturbance to my focus, to my game," said the 35-year-old. “It required an enormous mental energy really to stay present, to stay focused, to take things day by day, and really see how far I can go."
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Djokovic turned each of the obstacles into stepping stones to reach the top of the tennis mountain. With 22 majors, Djokovic is now level with Rafael Nadal for the men’s record for singles majors. The Australian Open win also saw him reclaim the No. 1 ranking.
Djokovic had started the tournament as the overwhelming favourite. Why wouldn’t he? He hasn’t lost on Australian soil for the past five years. But no one could have quite predicted the manner in which he stacked up the wins in the past fortnight. His average forehand speed has gone up from 124kmph in 2021 to 131kmph in 2023. In the final, it went up to 134kmph in the second and third sets.
Playing the most attacking tennis of his life, he brushed past Alex de Minaur (6-2, 6-1, 6-2) in the fourth round, Andrey Rublev (6-1, 6-2, 6-4) in the quarter-final and Tommy Paul (7-5, 6-1, 6-2) in the semi-final. And though Tsitsipas gave him a much tougher fight in the final, the Greek never looked like he could pull the rug from under Djokovic’s feet.
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While Djokovic may have emerged triumphant yet again, carrying on the flame for the Big 3, the tumult in men’s tennis was for all to see. The Australian Open men’s draw lost its top two seeds—Nadal and Casper Ruud—in the third round. Andy Murray turned back the years and came up with two battling performances against Matteo Berrettini and Thanasi Kokkinakis. But the five-set epics took too much out of him and he went down to Roberto Bautista Agut in the third round.
The upshot was that by the quarter-finals it was well and truly Djokovic versus the rest. Apart from the Serb, there were no Grand Slam champions left and only Tsitsipas had a major final to his name. Four of the eight—Sebastian Korda, Jiri Lehecka, Ben Shelton and Paul—were first-time Grand Slam quarterfinalists.
With more opportunities opening up, the younger brigade is gathering strength, but Djokovic, who has now won 10 Grand Slam titles after the age of 30, is showing no signs of slowing down. “I don’t have intention to stop here," he declared. Only two tennis players have more singles majors than him—Serena Williams with the Open Era (post 1968) record of 23 and Margaret Court with an all-time record of 24. History is well within his sight.
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A first step
For Sabalenka, it was the first of the glorious majors. The Belarussian, who played under a neutral flag, pummels the ball harder than most on the women’s tour, but hadn’t been able to piece the Grand Slam puzzle before this.
One of the problems had been harnessing that power; the other being her second serves. In 2022 alone she hit 428 double faults and was constantly quizzed about it during her run in Melbourne this year. That can chip at a players’ confidence, but the 24-year-old proved she’s made of stronger stuff.
The start of the final was an indicator. Sabalenka, who served first, opened with a double fault. She turned back, gave a wry smile, shook it off. Next point, ace. Through the high quality two hour 28-minute final, Rybakina kept her on the edge with some clean, flat, fast groundstrokes. But Sabalenka found another gear. In the third set, her forehand speed moved to 140kmph—higher than what Djokovic and Tsitsipas had managed till then. She faltered on the first three match-points, but converted on her fourth to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
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“(Earlier) I always had this weird feeling when people would come to me and ask for signature," she said on Saturday. “I would be like, ‘Why are you asking for signature? I’m nobody. I don’t have a Grand Slam and all this stuff’. I just changed how I feel. I start respect myself more. I start to understand that I’m here because I work so hard and I’m actually good player. Every time I had a tough moment on court, I was just reminding myself that I’m good enough to handle all this."
Mirza’s Grand Slam bow
One player who was rarely short on confidence was Mirza. A standard-bearer for Indian women’s tennis, Mirza took on a pre-dominantly white sport and patriarchy with equal gusto. She climbed to a career-high of 27 in singles but injuries forced her out. But Mirza blossomed in doubles, winning six Grand Slams—three in women’s doubles and three in mixed doubles—and rose to World No. 1 in 2015.
Life came a full circle for Mirza, who will retire from tennis next month, in Melbourne. Having started her Grand Slam journey at the Australian Open 18 years ago, she bowed out of the grand stage at the same tournament. The 36-year-old Mirza and 42-year-old Bopanna defied the odds to reach the final of mixed doubles. But they couldn’t find a way past Brazil’s Luisa Stefani and Rafael Matos, losing 6-7, 2-6. “I’m able to say I’m leaving the game because I want to, on my own terms," Mirza said. “Today I’m here, sitting after a Grand Slam final, knowing that I still have the level to make it… I’m choosing to say that I want other things."
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If you scratch the surface of mere wins and losses, Grand Slam tennis gives a fascinating look into players of different cultures, and nationalities, and battles and career arcs converging upon the big stage for a fortnight. This Australian Open, amidst all the intertwining narratives, celebrated a beginning, an end and march towards history.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.
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- FIRST PUBLISHED01.02.2023 | 07:00 AM IST
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