MELBOURNE—We were sure of one thing: it was going to be close, and it was going to be long. Which champion was going to win? On that, opinions were divided in the Media Centre at Melbourne Park. But a shattering, obliterating 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 win for Novak Djokovic in his 53rd match against his great rival Rafael Nadal? No, no one saw that coming. That was impossible. But this is sport, and it happened.
With the benefit of hindsight, the outcome was decided when Djokovic broke Nadal’s serve in the second game of the match. “My main objective was to start off well,” Djokovic said. “We all know what intensity he brings to the court. He wants you to feel his presence; he’s so focused, jumping around and sprinting. That early break was crucial. After winning the first set I was able to relax a bit.”
Djokovic was hesitant to say that he surprised himself, although he was obviously somewhat stunned to have made only 15 unforced errors during his last two matches combined.
“But I always believe I can play that way," he would say, "play a truly perfect match.”
Perfection? It was as near perfect as anyone could ask for. Nadal, unable to explain his tentative start, fought like he always has, but Djokovic was everywhere, hitting harder, moving faster, gobbling up every chance that came his way. Nadal finally reached a set point midway through the third but couldn’t take it. His defense, normally so sound, was being breached at every turn.
Talking off his enforced absence from the tour since the US Open, Nadal said he had been able to practice more on his offensive game, but not so much on defense. “To play against a player like him, playing the way he played tonight," the 2009 Australian Open champion said, "I needed that defensive game to finally have the chance to be offensive, no?”
Absolutely—and Nadal, who had lost from a break up in the fifth set to Djokovic in the 2012 final here in Melbourne, and also from a break in the fifth against Roger Federer in the 2017 final, simply couldn’t stem the relentless flow of Serb aggression.
For Djokovic, to have overtaken Roy Emerson’s record of six Australian titles—especially with Emmo there to shake his hand—was obviously a hugely satisfying moment. And with three Grand Slam titles currently in his possession, Djokovic will pay special attention to his clay-court game come Monte Carlo in April, with the French Open in his sights. Yes, it may be Nadal on clay, a sobering thought for anyone, but this triumph will serve him well.
Happily, there had been plenty of eventful happenings along the road to the men’s semifinals, although they, too, turned out to be disappointingly one-sided. Djokovic had crushed the previously underperforming French talent Lucas Pouille, who suddenly bloomed under the tutelage of Amelie Mauresmo, 6-0, 6-2, 6-2. Pouille had tamed the massive serve of Milos Raonic in the quarters but he was hopeless against the Serb.
Stefanos Tsitsipas barely did any better against Nadal, going down 6-2, 6-4, 6-,0 but that did little to erase the feeling that the 20-year-old Greek is setting off on a stellar year after playing so well to beat Federer in the fourth round. He called his loss to Nadal an “education,” and will treat it as such.
Frances Tiafoe was the other member of the NextGen to leave his calling card at Melbourne. He will be back. Tiafoe, who turned 21 during the tournament, beat Kevin Anderson and Grigor Dimitrov during an impressive run to his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, and will return to defend his ATP title at Delray Beach next month full of confidence.
As a contest, the women’s final provided everything the men’s final couldn’t. And it confirmed the arrival of a fascinating new star for women’s sport worldwide. Naomi Osaka, who recovered from missing three straight match points on Petra Kvitova’s serve in the second set, battled back to win her second straight Grand Slam title with a magnificent, 7-6, 5-7, 6-4 triumph.
No need to remind anyone of the unhappy drama that surrounded Osaka’s victory in the US Open when a Serena Williams tantrum stole so much of her limelight. This was quite different. It was all about this remarkable 21-year-old coming to terms with her own characteristics as she proved that she is learning to confront and tame adversity.
After a melt down in the semi-final against Lesia Tsurenko in Brisbane two weeks before the Australian Open, Osaka castigated herself in a press conference, calling herself childish, admitting that she had let herself down and promising not to let her emotions run away with her again. In the Melbourne final, she was as good as her word. Marching off the court for a bathroom break after losing the second set with a towel draped over her head, Osaka obviously remembered what she told herself, and us, and found a way of pulling herself together.
When asked what she was feeling at that moment, she said with a smile, “Did you not see my tears?” But the tears were just part of the growing up process. “But I’m not sure if it’s feeling grown up or being able to dissociate my feelings," she went on. "I don’t know it that makes sense. Like, you know how people get worked up about things? That’s a very human thing to do. Sometimes, I feel like I don’t want to waste my energy doing stuff like that. I think about this on court, too. Like in the third set of my match today, I literally tried to turn off all my feelings. So that’s why I wasn’t yelling so much in the third set.”
Even more revealingly, Osaka added, “I just thought to myself that this is my second time playing a final. I can’t really act entitled. To be playing one of the best players in the world, to lose a set, and suddenly think I’m so much better than her that that isn’t a possibility.”
This thoughtful act of self-discipline enabled this American-based, half-Japanese, half-Haitian young woman to return to the calculated aggression she had shown in the first set and a half of the match, unloading power-packed forehands and unreturnable off-backhands that left her tall Czech opponent lunging in their wake.
Kvitova, who also had considerable support from an enthralled crowd on Rod Laver Arena, did her best to match Osaka blow for blow, but she could rarely push her opponent far enough back in the court to prevent an explosive array of shots from penetrating her defenses. Osaka, just as she had done against Williams at Flushing Meadows, was always waiting to pounce, ever on the lookout for the moment to take one step forward and go for the winner. It was a stunning performance and one that broke the sequence of eight consecutive Grand Slams in which there had always been a different winner.
A year before, Osaka had been ranked 72nd in the world. She is now No 1. The records may show that to be a record rise to the summit. If it left her looking a little bewildered, no wonder. She was so nervous on the podium before giving her victory speech, she forgot to smile. “I was panicking,” she smiled in embarrassment. “I am going to be thinking about that for the rest of the day.”
One thing seems certain, Osaka is going to be charming us and entertaining us for a long time to come.
This Week on Tennis Channel Plus:
WTA St. Petersburg: Starting Monday, Jan. 28 at 5 a.m. ET, catch live coverage of the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy featuring Australian Open finalist Petra Kvitova and Maria Sharapova.
WTA Hua Hin: Top seed Garbine Muguruza headlines the field from Hua Hin. Watch every match of the Thailand Open, starting Monday, Jan. 28 at 3 a.m. ET.