Australian Open: Djokovic ready to go from villain to victor as Serbian great nears grand slam record

By Sports Desk January 28, 2023

Novak Djokovic was sitting at home at this time last year, tapping out messages of congratulations to the Australian Open champions, no doubt sick to the stomach.

On Sunday in Melbourne, he can complete the journey from outcast to conquering hero, as he faces Stefanos Tsitsipas for the men's singles title at his favourite grand slam.

There are no bankers in tennis – aside from those in the posh seats – but Djokovic has won nine out of nine previous Australian Open finals, and his last nine matches against Tsitsipas.

He is in scintillating form and the hamstring pull that was seemingly troubling him earlier in the fortnight no longer seems a factor, so a Djokovic triumph seems at the very least a probable outcome.

On the line for the Serbian will be a 10th Australian Open title, a record-tying 22nd men's singles grand slam, and the not-so-small matter of the world number one ranking.

Across the net, Tsitsipas is seeking a first major, but he can also vault to number one should he lift the trophy. Tsitsipas and Djokovic have met in a slam final before, but both men have bizarrely claimed to have forgotten all about it.

Djokovic has played so many major finals that perhaps he might have briefly put the 2021 French Open title match out of his mind. For Tsitsipas, however, the message is hard to believe. He lost from two sets up that day, in what was his only final at any of the four majors up to now.

Of course Tsitsipas has no interest in talking about such a personally dark day, and instead his message is that he feels "very optimistic" about this latest opportunity.

Yet Djokovic has been steamrollering opponents, and his latest mission is almost complete. At the age of 35, this would go down as one of his finest grand slam triumphs.

But has this been a revenge mission? Does Djokovic still feel slighted for what happened last year, when the Australian government, led by then Prime Minister Scott Morrison, had him deported amid an almighty vaccination hullabaloo.

Morrison is no longer in that top office, and the Park Hotel immigration detention facility where Djokovic was kept 12 months ago released its last refugees in April.

Those visiting Australia do not have to provide proof of vaccination any more, or a medical exemption. This is a strikingly different Australia to last year, and Djokovic might cut loose with thoughts about his previous treatment after Sunday's final. He said earlier this month he felt he had been turned into a "villain of the world", but his message has been a calmer one in recent days.

For now, he is not getting into how being kicked around like a political football truly felt.

"Honestly, I'm over it," Djokovic said on Friday. "Once I came into Australia, my intentions were always very positive to come back. Of course, the feelings of coming back to Australia this year were different than any other year because of the events of last year.

"I said many times that I don't hold any grudges, that I just love playing in Australia, love being here. That kind of emotion helped me to feel comfortable and to play well. I won Adelaide, now I'm in the finals of the Australian Open. I haven't lost a match in last five weeks in Australia."

He also has bad news for those rivals hoping he joins Roger Federer in retirement soon.

Rafael Nadal, last year's Australian Open champion, is another who might be nearing the end, and it is his record of 22 slams that Djokovic is targeting on Sunday. But Djokovic is playing the tennis of a much younger man, and he is determined to not only break the men's slam record but obliterate it, while wrestling with the emotions that tennis brings out of him.

Djokovic said: "When we're on the tennis court in the midst of a battle, some of the things surface, and I have to deal with it. So it's a great school of life for me.

"Then at the same time I have professional goals and ambitions. Those are grand slams and being number one in the world. Those two probably pinnacles of the professional tennis world have always been there as goals for me. So I do want to make more history of this sport, no doubt.

"I feel game-wise physically I still can sustain and maintain the top level. So as long as that's the case, why not keep going?

"I don't know when the end is going to happen in terms of my professional career. Right now I have the motivation, I have the support of my close ones, which is also something that is probably underestimated and not maybe talked about a lot, but it's a key, especially as a father."

Overall, Djokovic holds a 10-2 record against Tsitsipas, having lost two of their first three meetings. The 10 defeats are the most Tsitsipas has suffered against any player, and this final will mark his 350th career match against a top-10 players.

That is a record in itself, and Djokovic holds a 69.3 per cent win rate in such matches, whereas Tsitsipas has only a 44.3 per cent winning record against players with a top-10 ranking.

Tsitsipas, at 24, is the youngest men's singles Australian Open finalist since Djokovic and Andy Murray, both 23 at the time, contested the 2011 final, and he could become the fifth to take the title before turning 25 in the 21st century, after Federer, Marat Safin, Djokovic and Nadal.

However, Tsitsipas has lost his last three ATP-level finals, and his last six on hard courts, so that does not bode well at all.

Not that the Greek will let such numbers worry him, and perhaps he has forgotten those defeats too.

"I'm playing great tennis. I'm enjoying myself," said Tsitsipas. "I just see no downside or negativity in what I'm trying to do out there. Even if it doesn't work, I'm very optimistic and positive about any outcome, any opponent that I have to face.

"This is something that has been sort of lacking in my game. I genuinely believe in what I'm able to produce. That is more than enough. I go about this way. I strive for it every single day. It might not go the way I want it to, but I put 110 per cent out there."

Related items

  • Raducanu breezes into second round at Eastbourne Raducanu breezes into second round at Eastbourne

    Emma Raducanu is through to the second round at Eastbourne after a commanding straight-sets victory over Sloane Stephens on Tuesday.

    Despite an early scare, Raducanu cruised through, winning 6-4 6-0 in just one hour 17 minutes.

    Raducanu and Stephens traded blows early on in the first set, with both getting double breaks to stay neck-and-neck before the Briton edged it in the final game by breaking the American's serve once more.

    She then brushed Stephens aside in just 25 minutes for the second without dropping a single game, to set up a meeting with Jessica Pegula in the next round.

    Data Debrief: Raducanu in control

    Raducanu finished off the match in style, winning the last nine games in a row, and broke Sloane's serve six times.

    The 21-year-old finished with 23 winners to just 13 unforced errors to tee up a marquee match-up in the second round.

  • Djokovic will only play Wimbledon if title in reach after surgery Djokovic will only play Wimbledon if title in reach after surgery

    Novak Djokovic will only play at Wimbledon if he feels he has a chance of winning the tournament, with a decision on his involvement to be made before Friday's draw.

    Djokovic tore the medial meniscus in his right knee at the French Open earlier this month, withdrawing ahead of a scheduled quarter-final against Casper Ruud.

    He underwent surgery on the injury less than three weeks ago but still travelled to SW19 on Monday and was seen out on the practice courts.

    However, the Serbian will only participate if he feels he has a realistic chance of an eighth Wimbledon crown, which would equal Roger Federer's all-time record. 

    "I didn't come here to play a few rounds," Djokovic told BBC Sport. "You can never know 100% what is going to happen at a tournament, but I'm going to make a decision based on the feeling that I have.

    "If I know I can play close to my maximum or at maximum, then I'll play. If not, then I'll give somebody else a chance to play."

    Asked if his maximum meant a title push, Djokovic replied: "That's why I'm here. 

    "I don't plan to retire or for this to be my last Wimbledon. The injury happened at an unfortunate moment but it's part of the sport."

    Having gone through a two-hour session with bandaging on his affected knee on Monday, Djokovic added his recovery is going well and said he will give himself as much time as possible to make a decision.

    "It's been going well. Rehab is going in the right direction every single day, a few per cent better and better. That's what's giving me hope and encouragement," he said.

    "I still have a week left, which is plenty of time. I'm going to give my best to have a clear understanding of where I am before the draw is made, and we'll take it from there.

    "I'm taking things gradually. I'm not pushing myself 100% yet but I'm hoping that's going to come in the next few days."

  • Brazil 0-0 Costa Rica: Wasteful Selecao frustrated in Copa America opener Brazil 0-0 Costa Rica: Wasteful Selecao frustrated in Copa America opener

    Brazil began their Copa America campaign with a frustrating goalless draw against Costa Rica at the SoFi Stadium.

    The Selecao dominated large periods of the Group D clash. Marquinhos saw a goal ruled out following a VAR review, while Lucas Paqueta rattled the woodwork from distance.

    Yet despite enjoying just under three-quarters of the possession and registering 19 shots to their opponents' two, they could not find the breakthrough and failed to win their opening match in the competition for the first time since 2016.

    Dorival Junior's side subsequently lost early ground on Group D leaders Colombia, who beat Paraguay 2-1 earlier in the day.

    Brazil quickly asserted their authority on proceedings in California as they sought the game's opening goal.

    Rodrygo steered a shot wide following a jinking run into the penalty area, while Raphinha was denied by Patrick Sequeira after latching onto a diagonal ball over the top of the Costa Rica defence.

    The Selecao thought they had broken the deadlock on the half-hour mark when Marquinhos applied the finishing touch after Rodrygo glanced Raphinha's free-kick towards the far post, only for the strike to be ruled out for offside following a VAR review. 

    Rodrygo fired narrowly over in first-half stoppage time and, then on 63 minutes, Lucas Paqueta saw his ferocious 25-yard drive crash against Sequeira's left upright.

    Dorival withdrew the quiet Vinicius Junior in favour of Endrick and Savinho for the final 20 minutes, and both looked dangerous upon their introductions.

    The latter's cross almost saw Costa Rica defender Haxzel Quiros head into his own net with his blushes spared by Sequeira, who then beat away Guilherme Arana's fierce volley.

    Savinho was involved again in stoppage time as he teed up one final opportunity for Bruno Guimaraes, who bent his first-time shot narrowly wide to compound a frustrating start to the tournament for the nine-time winners.

    Selecao stutter on return to States

    It is fair to say Brazil do not boost particularly fond recent memories of playing in the United States in recent years.

    After all, the Selecao crashed out in the group stages when the Copa America was last held in this nation eight years ago.

    Neymar, who was part of that side, watched on from the stands having been ruled out of this tournament through injury.

    Try as they may, his team-mates just could not break down their opponents and turn their dominance into the elusive goal, with just three of their 19 attempts on target.

    Fresh from playing a starring role in Real Madrid’s LaLiga and Champions League double, Vinicius Junior was unable to inspire his nation – his tallies of 45 touches and 23 passes were the lowest recorded by any of Brazil’s outfield starters.

    On a brighter note, Marquinhos made his 16th Copa America appearance – with only Dani Alves (19) and Thiago Silva (18) playing more times for the Selecao in the competition since 2000 – though a VAR review prevented him from marking the occasion with a goal.

    Another clean sheet for repellent Costa Rica

    Costa Rica were heavy underdogs on their return to the Copa America for the first time in eight years.

    Not since 2004 have Los Ticos progressed from the group stages of this competition, but they certainly know what it takes to claim a scalp on the big stage.

    Exactly 10 years ago, they beat Uruguay and Italy to top Group D, which also featured England, on the way to reaching the World Cup quarter-finals.

    Fast forward a decade and Joel Campbell, who was part of that side, came off the bench for his 140th cap as his nation halted a run of nine successive defeats by Brazil. 

    More impressively, Costa Rica have kept clean sheets in each of their last four competitive games.

    Their failure to record a single shot on target for the first time in a Copa America match since 2011 will be a slight concern, but that defensive stubbornness will stand them in good stead as they look to progress in this tournament.

© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.