Djokovic proves again that he is tennis’s ultimate warrior – even if the Serb is unlikely to ever get the full respect he’s due
As has so often been the case in Novak Djokovic’s career, he found himself battling not only his opponent on the other side of the net in Sunday’s Australian Open final, but also bellicose sections of the crowd.
Djokovic overcame the spirited Dominic Thiem in a five-set epic in Melbourne, as the 32-year-old Serb won a record-extending eighth Australian Open title and a 17th Grand Slam overall.
It was a febrile, frenetic match in which Djokovic was forced to battle back from two sets to one down, while overcoming health issues midway through which he later explained was dizziness caused by dehydration.
Beyond that, there were the ugly run-ins with the crowd which at one point saw Djokovich tell supporters to “shut the f*ck up” for making noise during a point in the first set.Also on rt.com ‘Shut the f*ck up!’ Djokovic fumes at Australian Open crowd during tense clash with Thiem (VIDEO)
The Serb also had an unsavory exchange with umpire Damien Dumusois in the second set after being handed violations for taking too long over his serve, tapping the official’s foot on the way back to his chair and sarcastically muttering: “Great job man. You made yourself famous, well done.”
It was tetchy stuff, and it was typical of the belligerence that Djokovic sometimes allows to boil over during his matches.
It was also the perfect fuel for the anti-Djokovic sentiment in the crowd – a fact not lost on observers as the action unfolded in Melbourne.
The three most reliably crowd-supported players in men’s tennis:1) Federer2) Nadal3) Whoever is playing Djokovic https://t.co/Hd9MBlsvod— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) February 2, 2020
Indeed, those incidents across four hours in Melbourne on Sunday night – the fightback, the crowd battle, the umpire spat – in many respects demonstrated why, despite being his sport's greatest warrior, Djokovic is unlikely ever to receive full credit for his achievements.
After moving onto 17 Slams, the Serb is now within even closer striking range of the tallies of his ‘Big Three’ rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who have 19 and 20 major titles respectively.
Djokovic will fancy his chances of retiring with a greater haul than both, although even that would not see him cement GOAT status in the majority of fans’ eyes.
Federer, 38, will always be tennis’s golden boy for the seemingly effortless grace with which he has racked up his record Grand Slam haul.
Nadal, 33, is less popular, with his cruder, power-based approach and Grand Slam total somewhat lopsided given his stupendous record of 12 French Open titles – but is still viewed by most as a cut above Djokovic.
Djokovic suffers partly from the fact that he was a latecomer to the Federer-Nadal rivalry, winning his first Grand Slam at the Australian Open in 2008 – by which point Federer had 12 Slams under his belt and Nadal three.
Many fans had established that duopoly as the popular battle at the top of tennis, even as Djokovic steadily racked up his own list of accolades.
It’s true that Djokovic’s comparative belligerence – again on show against Thiem – has not done him any favors, while his style of play has been demeaned as less easy on the eye than that of Federer and Nadal.
On the first count, Djokovic is accused by some of putting on a façade as he has toned down his aggression and fan-baiting.
But that is harsh, given he showed again in his speech on Sunday in Melbourne – in which he praised Thiem and spoke on the Australian bushfires as well as the tragic death of his friend, the basketball player Kobe Bryant – that he can be a humble, compassionate competitor.
The second count, namely that Djokovic seems more machine than man on court, is essentially backhanded testament to the fact that he can scrap like no other to win matches.
At 2-1 up on Sunday and with Djokovic struggling, Thiem must have thought he was well set to claim a Grand Slam title at was the third attempt for the Austrian.
No such luck as Djokovic roared back with the relentlessness that is his hallmark.
Logic dictates, of course, that it’s best to wrap up victory in Grand Slam finals as soon as possible, but of the five major finals Djokovic has contested that have gone the full five sets, he has won four and lost just one (the 2012 US Open against Andy Murray).
By comparison, Nadal’s win ratio in five-set Grand Slam finals is 50-50, with three wins and three defeats; for Federer it’s five defeats and four wins in the five-set major finals he has contested.
That may be an admittedly crude measure of doggedness, but it does show that if it’s going to go the distance, Djokovic will far more often than not be the winner.
That proved to be the case again against Thiem. While Djokovic was not at his best, particularly during his mid-match slump, he showcased the guts and relentlessness he has so often called upon to propel him to Grand Slam titles.
So while he stands little chance of retiring as a fan favorite in the same league as those two sporting saints Federer and Nadal, let’s at least put some respect on Djokovic’s name for being tennis’s ultimate warrior.
By Liam Tyler