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Will Djokovic’s Australian cloak of invincibility survive last year’s tear?

Stretching limits: Djokovic’s athletic ability and powers of recuperation make him a formidable opponent in the best-of-five-set format over two weeks. 

No ill feelings: Djokovic said he wanted to move on from last year’s deportation episode. His decision to return and compete in Australia, he said, showed he held no grudges. 

No ill feelings: Djokovic said he wanted to move on from last year’s deportation episode. His decision to return and compete in Australia, he said, showed he held no grudges. 

At their peak, great players exude a sense of inevitability, a sense that even the most determined foe will ultimately fall short. The greatest do something even more remarkable: they radiate that very feeling of the result being preordained even during off-peak hours. 

Few things in tennis have seemed as inevitable as Novak Djokovic — among the greatest of all time — winning the first Major of the year in Melbourne. He has lifted the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup on nine of his previous 14 attempts, having first triumphed in 2008.

Indeed, Djokovic’s dominance in Australia isn’t limited to the Australian Open, where he has a win-rate of 91%. He hasn’t lost a singles match in the country since his defeat to Hyeon Chung in the fourth round of the 2018 Australian Open. Unbeaten in 34 matches since then, Djokovic will want to extend that streak to 41 over the next fortnight, culminating in the final on January 29.

Despite his stunning success, the Serb’s memories of his time Down Under will forever include an experience he has no desire to revisit or relive. 

Political storm

Djokovic missed last year’s Australian Open when he was deported because his unvaccinated status breached the country’s vaccination requirement for in-bound travellers. He was at the centre of a political storm after arriving with a medical exemption, with the decision to grant the nine-time champion entry outraging many in Australia as the nation battled a surge in infections. 

Djokovic was also banned from Australia for three years after losing a high-stakes legal battle, which appeared the only obstacle standing between him and a 10th title. But that ban was waived in November and the 35-year-old received a warm welcome in Adelaide this month when he arrived for a warm-up event ahead of the hardcourt Major.

Djokovic certainly felt the love at the Adelaide International, which he won, and spoke about moving on from last year’s episode. “It’s one of those things that sticks with you, for, I guess, the rest of your life, but it is a valuable life experience,” he said. “I have to move on. What you focus on, you become. If I focus on the negatives, that’s what I’ll attract, so I don’t want to do that. I don’t hold a grudge. Coming back to Australia speaks to how I feel about this country.

“If I have to pick one country where I’ve had the most success, which treated me in the best way in terms of tennis, it’s here. I’ve had some epic matches. The circumstances last year were as they were… but I’m happy to be here, focus on tennis and enjoy my time with you guys.

“The support in the last 10 days was something that I don’t think I’ve experienced too many times in my life. It definitely felt like playing at home. It’s certainly a gift.”

With one obstacle — that of entering Australia — out of the way, another — injury — raised its head. Djokovic hurt his hamstring in the semifinal win over Daniil Medvedev in Adelaide. But he showed no signs that the injury might derail his Australian Open campaign by saving a match-point to defeat Sebastian Korda 6-7(8), 7-6(3), 6-4 to claim his 92nd career singles title.

Incredible resilience

It was another instance of the Serb showcasing both his miraculous powers of physical recovery and his inexhaustible reserves of mental resilience. It’s these two qualities, in addition to perhaps the most complete game in tennis history, that make him such a formidable opponent in best-of-five-set tennis over two weeks. He worked with a physiotherapist all night before the final — an inspiring commitment to digging deep in the quest for a solution.

“It’s an internal battle with myself because there’s one voice that is always telling you: ‘you can’t do it, you’re too tired’, this and that, right? The bad guy and the good guy. You try to feed the good guy so he can become louder and stronger than the bad guy. It’s as simple as that,” Djokovic said, explaining his approach to dealing with physical and mental challenges.

Having tied Rafael Nadal’s career singles tally (92) in Adelaide — only Jimmy Connors (109), Roger Federer (103) and Ivan Lendl (94) have collected more trophies than these two — Djokovic will have designs of pulling level with his great rival’s Grand Slam total in Melbourne.

Nadal increased his count of Major titles to 22 last year by winning the Australian Open and Roland Garros. But Djokovic reduced the deficit at Wimbledon by claiming his 21st even as the Spaniard withdrew from the semifinals at the Championships with an abdominal tear. 

Although Nadal has struggled since then, he will be one of Djokovic’s biggest threats over the next fortnight if his body holds up. Their head-to-head is incredibly tight: 30-29 to Djokovic.

“The last few months haven’t been easy for me,” Nadal said, ahead of his title defence in Australia. “Main thing for me now is to recover the positive feelings on court, being competitive. I hope to. I am ready to make that happen, but let’s see.”

The threats

With World No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz (1-0 vs. Djokovic head-to-head) pulling out, the list of players who can hope to threaten Djokovic’s dominance on the hardcourts isn’t long. Medvedev (4-9 vs. Djokovic) beat the Serb to win his only Major to date at the 2021 US Open, but has never defeated him in Australia. Like Medvedev, Dominic Thiem (5-7), Alexander Zverev (4-7) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (2-10) have multiple wins over Djokovic but losing head-to-head records. 

It remains to be seen whether any of them can find their best in Melbourne.

Felix Auger-Aliassime (1-1) and Holger Rune (1-1, with the win coming in the final of last year’s Paris Masters) are two others to keep an eye on, should their paths cross the 35-year-old’s. Then there is ‘frenemy’ Nick Kyrgios, who lost last year’s Wimbledon final, but is still 2-1 against Djokovic — the only player in the draw with a winning record spread over at least three matches.

Djokovic, however, isn’t looking at what his rivals are doing but focusing on himself. “I look forward to Melbourne. Rod Laver is probably — not probably — it certainly is my most successful court in my career,” he said. “I love playing there. I’m working on specific things in terms of my game, my body, and getting my mind in the right state for the best-of-five and hopefully for two long weeks.”

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