Jo-Wildried Tsonga, Daniil Medvedev, Dominic Thiem, Rafael Nadal twice, and Andy Murray four times. All of them crashed, more or less fortunately, when they met Novak Djokovic in the final of the Australian Open. If Nadal is infallible in the final match at Roland Garros, the Balkan is no less so in his favourite tournament. A year ago, freshly deported from Australia after his stubborn battle to play the tournament without being vaccinated against COVID, Novak Djokovic was an outcast, with no alternative but to endure watching Rafael Nadal pull off a miracle in the final and beat Daniil Medvedev to take the lead among the three players who then shared the top spot in history, winning his 21st Grand Slam title on a stage that seemed reserved exclusively for him.
On Sunday, with a 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas in two hours and 56 minutes, Djokovic capped his golden return to Melbourne by winning his 10th title, also marking his 22nd Grand Slam and opening his fifth stint as world No. 1. Nole responded to the triple challenge and is now level with Nadal in the vibrant battle for the most career titles at the highest level. It is also the 93rd tournament in the overall successes, already one more than the Spaniard. Much of the fate of the match hinged on the extent to which Tsitsipas was able to find his forehand early to dominate the exchanges. He had done so with ease throughout the tournament, but on this occasion he found himself up against the best receiver on the circuit, who was able to make him uncomfortable at the start of play.
If Djokovic stays healthy throughout 2023 – and he is easily one of the fittest on tour – then it is a matter of when, not if, he climbs ahead of Nadal in the all-time grand slam title total.
A Renewed New Champion
When she saw Elena Rybakina’s forehand miss the baseline, Aryna Sabalenka dropped to court on Rod Laver Arena and covered her face with her arms. She released in tears all the tension that had gripped her in the semi-final, and in this title match she, where she wasted three match points before making good on the fourth. The stress had been accumulating over the years after unsuccessfully hovering around the top of the women’s game. She already had two Grand Slam doubles trophies, but a major singles title was missing from her resume. The one that raises her to number two in the world. The one that breaks the last barrier in front of her.
In the last two seasons, Aryna Sabalenka had been a semi-finalist at Wimbledon (2021) and the US Open (2021, 2022), but had never gone beyond that point. Hence those nerves in the semi-final against Linette, as she later admitted, and now Rybakina. It was so clear to her that this was her big chance. So far in 2023 she not only counts her matches by victories, but until this final of the Australian Open, she had not dropped a single set. If the Kazakh broke that streak in the first set, it was partly because Sabalenka was out of sync again. But as the match progressed, she took it and made it her own (4-6, 6-3, 6-4).
For two and a half hours, there was a deep duel between the best server of the tournament, Rybakina, and the best hitter, Sabalenka. The former had just beaten three Grand Slam winners in a row (Iga Swiatek, Jelena Ostapenko, Victoria Azarenka) and last year’s finalist, Danielle Collins; and the latter had started the year playing with disarming authority. Whenever they had met, it had lasted all three sets. And Melbourne was no different.
Unlike the men’s tournament, which seems to have ushered in a new era of Djokovic dominance – Nadal is injured and none of the next generation seems quite ready to challenge Novak – the women’s tournament’s conclusion was more nuanced. Sabalenka rose to number 2 in the world behind Iga Swiatek, who can go on impressive winning streaks at a moment’s notice. Now that Sabalenka has the “best player to never win a grand slam” monkey off her back, it will be exciting to see how frequently and consistently she can challenge for the biggest titles.