Just when the gap between the men’s-tennis generations seems to be narrowing, it widens again. Just when the Big 3 seem to be slowing down and maybe, just maybe, giving into the inevitability of age, they leap ahead again and play as well, if not better, than they ever have before.
Sunday’s Australian Open final between Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev was the latest clash of the ATP generations, and the most-anticipated yet. Coming in, there were signs that this could be the watershed moment when a 20-something would finally topple a 30-something in a major final. Earlier in the tournament, Medvedev’s contemporary, Stefanos Tsitsipas, had worn down Rafael Nadal over five sets. Alexander Zverev had pushed Djokovic through four tight sets. Most promisingly, Medvedev had won his last 20 matches, and three of his last four against Djokovic. Djokovic himself called Medvedev “the player to beat.”
And then he beat him. Easily.
It took the world No. 1 a set and a half to set everything straight again, and put an end to any talk of a changing of the guard. By the close of his 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 rout, we had returned to our regularly scheduled programming—i.e., the Grand Slam title chase. With his 18th major, Djokovic has pulled to within two of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, while Dominic Thiem remains the only player under 30 who has won even one.
Djokovic won his ninth straight Australian Open final in the span of about 20 minutes at the end of the first set and the start of the second. He had jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first set, and then watched as Medvedev settled down and leveled the score. By the time they reached 5-5, they were each holding at love, and it looked as if we were in store for the long chess match of attrition that many, including me, had predicted.
Instead, Djokovic hit a good return and followed it with a forehand winner. He hit another good return, crosscourt from the ad court, that surprised Medvedev. He followed that with a perfectly threaded backhand pass. And he broke for the set when he stretched to return a tough serve, and Medvedev put a forehand into the net.
“The last game was love-40, [I’m] trying to come back,” Medvedev said. “Hit two good serves, one good point, 30-40. Make a really good serve. He managed to, on the stretch, like I do sometimes, bring it back. I put it in the net. Set is done. That's where he’s stronger than many other players on the tour.”
Medvedev seemed to answer right away by breaking Djokovic to start the second. In reality, he had no answer for Djokovic’s game today, for his serve, his return, his blend of offense and defense, his polish. Medvedev spent the first set where he likes to be, well behind the baseline. When that didn’t work, he tried to move forward and attack in the second set, with even more dire results. Serving at 1-2 in the second set, Medvedev went for two quick backhand winners, and ended with two quick errors, and a service break. That was essentially the end of the match.
“I felt like I wanted to mix up things,” Medvedev said. “I wanted to try to do something different, but I felt like he took all the time from me, he took all the advantage in his side straightaway.”
“I didn't play bad but I didn't play high best level. Probably he made his game that good today that I couldn't stay at my best level.”
Before the match, we had heard a lot about Medvedev, the master strategist. But, as the Russian said, it was Djokovic who kept Medvedev from playing his game today. He did it with his serve, which was there when he needed it. He did it, as always, with his return; Medvedev won just 32 percent of his second serve points and was broken seven times. He did it by mixing in drop shots and short backhands and forcing Medvedev to be ready to race forward at any time. He did it with his willingness and ability to attack; Djokovic was 16 of 18 at the net. He did it by making 17 unforced errors to Medvedev’s 30.
We say that the game evolves, but it hasn’t found a way to evolve past the Big 3 yet. They remain the most game’s most complete players.
“We’re talking about some cyborgs of tennis,” Medvedev said. “When they’re in the zone…I feel like they’re just better tennis players.”
Afterward, Djokovic emphasized the human side of his win, and confirmed that he tore an oblique muscle earlier in the tournament.
“It has been definitely emotionally the most challenging Grand Slams that I ever had,” he said, “with everything that was happening, injury, off-the-court stuff, quarantines. It has been, least to say, a roller-coaster ride in the last four weeks.”
“I just accepted the fact that I’m going to have to play with the pain.”
Yet if anything, Djokovic was the fresher player in the final, and he closed the tournament by winning nine straight sets.
“I don’t feel like I'm old or tired or anything like that,” he said. “But I know that, you know, biologically and realistically things are different than they were 10 years ago for me. I have to be smarter with my schedule and peak at the right time.”
Djokovic sounded especially satisfied that he’ll soon break Roger Federer’s all-time men’s record for weeks at No. 1, with 311. With that out of the way (and with Federer presumably not reaching the top spot again), Djokovic can narrow his goals and his playing commitments.
“It's going to be a relief for me because I'm going to focus all my attention on Slams mostly,” he said.
Djokovic also talked about the criticism he has received during the quarantine and during the event.
“Of course it hurts,” he said. “I’m a human being like yourself, like anybody else…I cannot say I don’t care about it.”
So he said he was “pleasantly surprised" when Medvedev, in his runner-up speech, told a story about how “super-nice” Djokovic had been to him when he was a young, unknown player.
Djokovic may always face criticism, and may never be as beloved by the tennis world at large as Federer and Nadal are. But if a player who knows him personally, and who just lost to him in a major final, can find a moment to praise him, maybe, someday, the rest of us can, too.
Nestled between January's summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March's Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open's temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.
To commemorate this convergence of events, we're spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).