When Novak Djokovic pulled out of Adelaide, there was little to argue against it being a logical decision. The 16-time major champion had just completed a rousing—yet draining—three-set victory over Daniil Medvedev to seal Serbia’s place in the ATP Cup final. It set the table for a showdown with the man occupying the only rankings spot in front of him, Rafael Nadal. The Australian Open, Djokovic’s most successful Grand Slam event, was 10 days away from beginning.
“Exciting, exhausting, joyful, dreadful all at once,” were the emotions Djokovic expressed feeling after his latest bout with Medvedev.
In fact, only once since Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer became widely known as the Big Three has one of its members played an ATP event the week before a major. In 2017, Djokovic, searching for a morale-boosting performance, took a wild card at Eastbourne ahead of Wimbledon. He went on to win the tournament for his first triumph that year, though his season ended shortly thereafter with a right elbow injury. For the Spaniard and Swiss, their most recent pre-major week appearances go back much further to the former Sydney International: Nadal in 2007 and Federer in 2003.
With Serbian flags passionately paraded throughout Ken Rosewall Arena, Djokovic outclassed Nadal, 6-2, 7-6 (4), before teaming up with Viktor Troicki to clinch the inaugural event over Pablo Carreno Busta and Feliciano Lopez in doubles. In capping a memorable opening to the season, the 32-year-old began the 2020s with a roar—one that sent his chief competitors a resounding reminder that Melbourne Park is the House of Novak, and he has no intent on subletting it to another tenant this year.
While Adelaide dropped off from Djokovic’s plans in getting set for the Happy Slam, it wouldn’t have added much to the groundwork he’s put down for a successful title defense bid. Six singles matches are the most Djokovic has ever contested leading into the Australian Open, with five being the previous high following championship runs at 2007 Adelaide and 2016-17 Doha. The quality and range of opponents he defeated in Brisbane and Sydney speak for themselves: a now-healthy Kevin Anderson, No. 10-ranked Gael Monfils, capable Cristian Garin, a determined Denis Shapovalov, maniacal Medvedev (who had won their two prior meetings), and No. 1 Nadal—a rival Djokovic has now posted 15 consecutive sets against on outdoor hard courts (19 including indoors) dating back to 2013.
“I mean, it is the perfect preparation. I didn't know what to expect from the event,” Djokovic said at the conclusion of the ATP Cup. “I have never experienced such a support in my matches ever anywhere, and I have played the biggest stadiums in tennis, and this was something different. So I want to thank everybody for contributing to this victory on and off the court.”
Djokovic and Nadal split the four major trophies in 2019, and along with Federer, have taken home the past 12 overall. Stan Wawrinka was the last non-Big Three player to taste victory on the Grand Slam stage when he topped Djokovic for the 2016 US Open crown. Medvedev came the closest a year ago to breaking the mold when he was edged out by Nadal, 6-4 in the fifth, at Flushing Meadows, and might just be Djokovic’s biggest threat in adding another coveted trophy to his cabinet.
“Everybody keeps on talking about NextGen player winning a slam. It seems like it's getting closer. Hopefully not this year. We'll see,” Djokovic said in Sydney.
“[Medvedev] likes playing on hard courts, and it's just at times difficult to break him down from back of the court. So you have to kind of try to use the various tactics and variations in the game itself, the rotation in the ball, and not really give him always the same look because it seems like he's a machine. I feel the same when I'm in lockdown.”
Machine or not, Djokovic has the luxury of drawing from countless uplifting memories in his quest to take another step closer toward Federer’s record major mark of 20. And now, with Sydney’s chants of “No-le! No-le!” serving as a fresh reminder of the mutual affection he feels Down Under, Djokovic will be yearning to return the love on Rod Laver Arena once again as he chases a record-extending eighth event crown.
“Obviously [the] Australian Open has been my favorite tournament. It's the tournament where I played my best tennis,” said Djokovic.
“I really feel welcomed as a tennis player, because Australia is a country that nurtures a rich tennis tradition and history, and this is the reason why they have one of the four most important events in tennis. People recognize you, come up to you, give you support, and it's beautiful to be a tennis player in Australia.”