Tennis: Australian Open winner Djokovic has clean sweep in his sights
THERE were gales in Melbourne on Monday, as the sweltering hot spell that embraced the Australian Open finally broke.
It was a vintage fortnight, gathering speed through the exploits of home hope Bernard Tomic in the first week, and peaking on Sunday night as Novak Djokovic outpunched Rafael Nadal in one of the greatest finals of all.
The match represented a career high for Djokovic, which is saying something. No 1 in the world since he won Wimbledon last year, the Serbian has long since shrugged off his old reputation as a flaky funster who is more interested in clowning around than challenging for the biggest prizes.
Last year he turned in one of the most phenomenal seasons ever seen, going 43 matches unbeaten until the French Open semi-final against Roger Federer.
Now we can only wonder if he is about to do it all over again. And if so, where would that put him in our well-thumbed list of contenders for that ticklish title: the GOAT, or Greatest Of All Time?
Most would argue that he is still a fringe participant in this conversation
With five Grand Slam titles to his name, Djokovic remains a long march behind Nadal (10) or Federer (16). He is also harder to characterise as a player than either man. Nadal has the mien of an Aztec chieftain, a narrow-eyed warrior who fells his opponents with that spectacular and uniquely unorthodox forehand.
Federer is a peerless volleyer who floats on air like a hydrofoil. But Djokovic plays essentially the same game as the majority of baseline jockeys on the men’s tour. He just plays it better. Much better.
Djokovic’s ticket to the last three Grand Slam titles has been the completeness of his armoury. His forehand and backhand are equally solid and potent. He is light-footed and deceptively swift.
And the one thing he does better than anyone is belt the serve back so fast and deep that he, the receiver, is the one dictating play.
Most professionals have grown up knowing that they are only ever one big serve away from a cheap point. So this is an alarming development, because it completely changes the psychology of the game.
“Is something unbelievable how he returns, no?” said Nadal after Sunday’ night’s match. “I never played against a player who’s able to return like this.”
Djokovic is something of a stealth bomber: he looks like he’s not doing anything too dramatic, but there is an easy power in his shots, which are always delivered with precision and a smart tactical sense. He sneaks up on you and before you know it you are looking at a couple of breaks and a 6-1 set.
He is still nowhere near the top of the tree when it comes to public profile. A “social leaderboard” compiled by the Australian Open on the basis of Twitter comments and Facebook “likes” suggested that Nadal remains way out in front, scoring 50 per cent more mentions than Djokovic, with Federer in second place.
But all that could change if he wins the French Open in five months' time, thus completing the non-calendar Grand Slam. This is something that even Federer has never been able to pull off, because of his relative weakness on clay.
In Djokovic’s case, though, his rhythmical consistency and retrieving ability should make him even harder to beat on a slow surface than a medium-paced one like Rod Laver Arena.
“The way I’m playing right now I think I have a game that is good enough to win the titles on all surfaces,” he said yesterday, during a photocall at Melbourne’s Carlton Gardens.
“I have proven that, even last year, winning back-to-back Madrid and Rome [on clay] – it was an incredible effort and gives me a lot of confidence and self-belief coming to the clay courts now.”
The bookmakers have certainly noticed Djokovic’s growing domination of the men’s game. They are quoting him at just 10-1 to win all four Grand Slams in 2012 — an achievement that would be all the more extraordinary given that this is an Olympic year, and Djokovic will try to peak twice in a month to win two finals at Wimbledon.
Once again, the man himself is refusing to rule anything out. And why should he, given the level he has been performing at? “It is the ultimate challenge to win all four Grand Slams,” he said. “One player has done it [Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969], so it is possible.
“Obviously the times are different. Tennis nowadays is much more competitive and much more physical and that makes that challenge more difficult to achieve.
"But everything is possible. I need to go slowly and really take one tournament at a time but Grand Slams are my biggest priority — including the Olympics – and I will try to aim my form for those tournaments.”
It might seem like a wildly ambitious goal, but every time we doubt Djokovic, he keeps surprising us.
Should he really sweep the board this year, at a time when the level of the men’s game has never been higher, we really might have to think about anointing him the Greatest Of All Time.