We're counting down the Top 10 matches of 2020 from Nov. 30 through Dec. 11. Click here to read each selection.
Novak Djokovic has won the Australian Open eight times, more than any other male player. But it hasn’t always been easy. Over the years, he’s been pushed to the limit by Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, and Stan Wawrinka, among others. When the last ball has been struck and the dust has finally settled, though, Djokovic has usually been the guy holding up the winner’s trophy. This year, in Dominic Thiem, he found a new foe to frustrate in a topsy-turvy five-setter Down Under.
Looking back at the scores and the circumstances of this match, it’s hard to keep that creaky cliché, “champions rise to the occasion” from jumping to mind. Djokovic came back from a two-set-to-one deficit in a Grand Slam final. He won his 17th major title, and kept Thiem from winning his first. He ran his record to 8-0 in championship matches in Melbourne. He extended the Big 3’s Slam winning streak to 13.
According to Djokovic, this win all part of the long game that the Big 3 have mastered together.
“At this stage of my career, Grand Slams are the ones I value the most,” he said. “They are the ones I prioritize. Before the season starts, I try to set my form, shape for these events where I can be at my prime tennis, mental, and physical abilities.”
That all sounds logical and rational. But tennis is rarely as rational as we would like it to be, and this maximally messy four-hour quasi-classic was anything but. Djokovic came closer to the mark when he was asked to sum up his evening in one word:
“Turbulent, I would say.”
The turbulence began in the second set, when Djokovic suddenly ran out of gas. Thiem had played more tennis than Djokovic coming in, but it was the Serb who spent much of this match in a daze. He staggered around Rod Laver Arena, exhausted and slump-shouldered, and he needed a refrigerator’s worth of food and drinks to revive him. Even Djokovic couldn’t explain it.
“It started off really well,” he said. “I broke his serve right away. I felt the experience on my side playing many Australian Open finals. For him, it was his first.”
“After I lost the second set, I started to feel really bad on the court. My energy dropped significantly. To be honest, I still don’t understand the reason why that has happened…Apparently doctor said I wasn’t hydrated enough.”
Maybe the burden of the Goat chase happened to Djokovic, the same way it happened to Federer and Nadal in 2019. At Wimbledon, Federer couldn’t convert two match points on his serve. At the US Open, Nadal jumped out to a two-set lead in the final before giving it back. In Melbourne, Djokovic won the first set and collapsed. We like to think these guys are immune to pressure, but even they can wilt when there’s so much on the line in every Slam final they play.
Wilt temporarily, that is. Like Nadal in New York, Djokovic found a way to right himself just in time. The fluids kicked in during the fourth set, and his body language and stamina improved. From that point on, he went back to doing what he does best: Forcing his opponent to hit a perfect shot, and then another, and then another. Thiem, whether it was because he grew tired or tensed up, began to misfire on his biggest weapon, his forehand. He made Djokovic work to the bitter end, but he could never get his nose in front again.
“He was a better player,” Djokovic said of Thiem. “Probably one point and one shot separated us tonight. Could have gone a different way.”
Djokovic then alluded to the two most important moments in the match: The break points that he saved early in each of the last two sets. He saved them both in the same, completely unexpected way: with a surprise run to the net.
“I served and volleyed when I was facing break point in the fourth and in the fifth,” Djokovic said. “It worked both of the times. It could also have been differently. Serve and volley is not something I’m accustomed to. I’m not really doing that that often.”
“I kind of recognized that as an important tactic in those circumstances, and I’m really happy it worked.”
Conventional tennis wisdom tells us that on big points, we should play to our strengths. When the big points came in this match, Djokovic did the opposite. Both times he rushed the net, and both times he came up with the backhand volley he needed.
What does that tell us? That Djokovic has a strategic sixth sense? That fortune favors the brave? I would say it shows that in tennis, execution is underrated. By making those crucial volleys, Djokovic turned a tactic that was at best counterintuitive, and at worst reckless, into a winning one. And he turned what looked like a breakthrough win for a new men’s generation into a 56th Grand Slam title for the Big 3.
“Champions rise to the occasion”: With Djokovic, the phrase is often not as simple as it sounds, but it’s just as true.