Australian Open Final Novak Djokovic Defeats Rafa Nadal

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

Australian Open Men’s Final- Novak Djokovic d. Rafa Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3.

There were a couple of narratives waiting to be told this Australian Open, but Novak Djokovic’s title win means they will have to keep on waiting, and that wait could be a while.

One narrative, the changing of the guard, was dismissed in the semis by Nadal’s defeat of Stefanos Tsitsipas. The re-emergence of Rafa Nadal with his abbreviated serve and first strike approach, was another of the stories tipped to be the headline of the tournament.

The narrative that actually played out, however, was one told many times before- Novak Djokovic winning the Australian Open.

The top seed’s 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 defeat of Rafa Nadal won him his 7th slam down under, his 15th in all (taking him above Pete Sampras), and his third in a row.

The prologue to the tournament opened with Djokovic as the main character with the bookmakers, pundits, and tennis world expecting a Djokovic win.

The top seed did not come in on the best form, losing his last two finals of 2018 to Karen Khachanov (Paris) and Sascha Zverev (WTF) and suffering a defeat to Roberto Bautista Agut in the Doha semis, but he did come in as the member of the Big Three with the most Grand slam momentum, and with the Big Three winning the previous eight slams, it did not look like that would change anytime soon.

Nevertheless, it was not long before the story of Djokovic potentially winning the title faded from the headlines as the top seed did not start the tournament well, beating qualifier Mitchell Krueger as expected in round 1, but then putting in a sub par performance in round two versus Jo-Wilfred Tsonga and round three versus Denis Shapovalov.

All eyes and headlines turned to the generations below Djokovic when Stefanos Tsitspias came along and defeated Roger Federer in the fourth round, the match of the tournament.

The Next Gen and the Next in Line army, it was rumored by many, had arrived to perform a coup– Frances Tiafoe was into the quarters, too, and some of the more recent and lost generations were making noise, as well- Lucas Pouille, Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic.

Rafa Nadal was doing his fair share of quelling the rebellion, defeating Alex di Minaur, Frances Tiafoe, and Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets, and the spotlight turned to the Spaniard, lighting him up as a favorite to take the title, as he stood in on the return, dictated with his serve, and controlled points with his forehand down the line.

Meanwhile Djokovic was still in the background, winning his matches in chaotic fashion- the struggle versus Daniil Medvedev, Kei Nishikori’s retirement, Lucas Pouille’s nerves. His habit of saving his best to last questioned, the likelihood of delivering the kind of focused, high level tennis to defeat such an in-form rival as Nadal in the final thought by some to be slim.

Chaos gave way to cohesion in the final, however. Djokovic came out playing with an easy and focused manner, as if he had played every match that way.

The Serb broke the Spaniard early in the first set to set the tone and his own serve was untouchable. The top seed lost just six points on his serve in the first set and had a 71 first serve percentage and 100% conversion rate.

In set 2, Djokovic’s first serve percentage stayed at 71% but his conversion rate dropped to 75, but the serve was still too good, the Serbian not offering Nadal a single break point, and breaking Nadal twice.

Nadal got a glimpse of just one break point, in the third set. The Spaniard was getting more into Djokivic’s service games now, the top seed’s first serve percentage dropping to 68, but his winning percentage was still high at 76% and the second serve was at 83 (84% the entire match).

When Djokovic was not dominating on serve and breaking down the Nadal serve, (he won 42% of receiving points), he was breaking down the second seed’s revamped hard court game.

Nadal’s ground strokes that looked so formidable in the first six rounds now looked ordinary as the second seed was pushed back behind the baseline with depth and consistency and pulled out wide with angles, far away from the baseline where he, Nadal, had been looking so at home, and right where Djokovic wanted him, off balance and on the run.

The Nadal revamped hard court game was now reduced to looking like a naive plan B by a Djokovic who, while Nadal was recovering from injury post US Open, was the most consistent player on the tour, on his day the very best, returning to number 1 in the world rankings and who, in the first Grand slam final of the 2019 season, when it mattered most, was easing into that consistency and greatness in synchronicity, hitting winners (he hit 34 in all), forcing errors and putting pressure on Nadal to conjure up unforced errors, 28 of them.

It’s no myth Novak Djokovic plays his best tennis in finals. He gets there doing what he has to in less than mythical fashion, appearing almost human, careful not to peak, changing into one of his many guises as the different opponents come his way, and then when it matters, he dons his very best outfit- the Grand Slam winning final one: solid, high percentage serving, the best returning in the game, deep and varied ground-strokes, decisive switches between offense and defense, a low unforced error count (he hit nine the entire match), perfect point construction with the right moves up the court and to the net, and the odd element of surprise, a beautiful half volley drop shot in the heart of the third set a reminder of his exceptional talent often shrouded in the efficiency and common sense of his game.

The jewel on the costume, though, is what turns mythical tales of Djokovic in Slam finals since 2014 into cold hard reality for his opponents- the mental toughness and belief, so strong on this day in particular it played a huge part in inflicting on Nadal his first straight sets defeat in his 25 Grand Slam finals.

Djokovic’s championship material narrative may have been placed in the myths and legends category by some parts of the tennis media this Australian Open, but the legend himself always believed his claims to the trophy would end up where it belonged, in the history section.

The Serbian holding the trophy aloft is the final and definitive image of the event and the fading, lingering memory we will take away is his hard court brilliance, delivered when nothing less than brilliance would do, and if we start thinking his final’s day peak play is a myth in future, he’ll be all too ready to turn up on finals day and orate it to us himself.

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.

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