Photo : @ATPTour
By Mike McIntyre
A Grand Slam draw includes 128 players but only one can go home truly satisfied with the outcome. For the 10th time in his career, that man was none other than Novak Djokovic.
Despite being seeded fourth in the tournament, few people would have considered anyone else as a bigger threat coming into the event and Djokovic proved them right with one of the cleanest performances of his career down under.
In the finals he met third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas but was able to dispatch him in straight sets for a 6-3, 7-6(4), 7-6(5) victory. The win not only gives him double digits titles in Australia, but ties him with Rafael Nadal with an astonishing 22 Major titles apiece.
While unable to play the Aussie Open in 2022 due to his vaccination status, Djokovic seemed to have extra motivation this year to return to his impeccable form at the tournament. As former player and current analyst Rennae Stubbs told Match Point Canada recently, Djokovic seemed to have, “a massive amount of vengeance in him.”
He dropped only one set the entire tournament while knocking-off quality seeded opponents such as Grigor Dimitrov, Alex De Minaur and Andrey Rublev along the way. Rublev in particular summed-up how potential opponents were feeling ahead of their quarter-final match when he bluntly said, “Nobody wants to face Novak!”
By the time he reached the final (where he now holds an impeccable 10-0 record), Djokovic was pretty much unstoppable. Tennis fans were hopeful that Tsitsipas might be able to continue his impressive play and put up some opposition, but even he was made to look like a mere mortal in comparison.
Let’s not gloss over the Greek tennis player’s fantastic tournament however. Tsitsipas was looking solid coming into the finals thanks to his strong serving, lethal forehand and beautiful one handed backhand. He took out two very formidable seeded players ahead of the finals in Jannik Sinner and Karen Khachanov.
Canadian tennis fans will recall the first ever encounter between Tsitsipas and Djokovic at the National Bank Open in Toronto back in 2018 when they faced each other in the round of sixteen. That epic win from Tsitsipas helped the Greek player make it all the way to the finals before falling to Nadal. Since then, Djokovic has pretty much owned their head to head however and now leads it by a lopsided margin of 11-2.
For Djokovic, despite a wonky hamstring that was still troubling him from his recent win in Adelaide, he looks like a man far younger than his years. What he’s doing at his age is so remarkable especially when you compare his age of 35 years old with the average age of the seven other quarterfinalists in the Aussie Open draw which was only 23.2 years old!
In the finals it was Djokovic who struck first, breaking Tsitsipas early in the first set and holding on to take it 6-3. There was little separating the two in the second set as both players stayed comfortably on serve until Tsitsipas had the first and only break point of the frame with Djokovic serving at 4-5, 30-40. Djokovic then cracked a forehand winner up the line to save the set and took the next two points to get to 5-5 and deny Tsitsipas the chance to even-up the match.
In the ensuing tiebreak at 6-6, both players seemed tight leading to several mistakes on both sides and in particular for Tsitsipas who made five unforced errors in the breaker which led Djokovic to a 6-4 lead and two sets points. With an unreturnable serve, Djokovic pushed his opponent out wide on the deuce court for him to take a two set to none lead.
Tsitsipas broke early for a 1-0 lead in the third set thanks to a Djokovic backhand that went wide, but as we so often see, the Serb broke right back to even things up at one game apiece. Strong serving on both sides ensued, especially from Djokovic who was conceding few points if any when he stepped-up to the line, and we ended up with another tiebreak that he once again took with ease.
After the match Tsitsipas conceded that, “Novak is a player that pushes you to your limit. This is very good for the sport, to have competitors like him, to have champions like him. He’s very important for us that want to get to his point one day. Getting our a**** kicked is for sure a very good lesson every single time!”
Tsitsipas can perhaps take consolation in the fact that since 2006 only once has a player outside of the Big Three of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal managed to win the Australian Open, which was back when Stan Wawrinka accomplished the feat in 2014.
The Rest of the Field
Despite struggling at the end of 2022 and early in the new year as well, deep-down tennis fans hoped that defending Aussie Open champion Rafael Nadal would be able to somehow return to form.
Unfortunately for the Spaniard it was a hip injury this time that hampered him in a straight-set loss to American Mackenzie McDonald in the second round. Nadal will have to miss 5-7 weeks in recovery and will hopefully be back and healthy in time for the clay court season where he will be seeking his 15th title at the French Open. It would be pretty epic to see he and Djokovic meet with the all-time Slam record on the line in Paris as well.
Andy Murray still has something left in the tank as evidenced by his two unbelievable five-set victories over Matteo Berrettini and Thanasi Kokkinakis in the opening rounds. It wasn’t that long ago that fellow players and tennis fans were bidding Murray farewell at the 2019 Aussie Open when it looked like he could no longer continue to play with his degenerating hip. After a successful surgery later that year, he’s now just played his 10th major tournament since that time and although it seems unlikely he’ll ever be able to contend for a fourth Slam title, he’s still an absolute inspiration to watch compete on the court.
American men also deserve recognition as they asserted themselves quite well at the Aussie Open this year with Sebastian Korda, Ben Shelton and Tommy Paul all making the quarterfinals. While we may never again see a period of time where the United States dominates on the ATP like they did in the early 1990s with Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang, the result this year in Melbourne was definitely a step in the right direction for our neighbours to the south.
The 2023 men’s double’s tournament marked back-to-back years that an unseeded all-Aussie duo won in front of their Melbourne fans thanks to Jason Kubler and Rinky Hijikata who captured the title in a 6-4, 7-6(4) victory over Hugo Nys and Jan Zielinski. They knocked-off three seeded teams en route to the title including the No. 1 tandem of Koolhof and Skupski in the quarter-finals.
Despite high hopes for Felix Auger Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov, it was not meant to be for Canadians at the Aussie Open this year. While a year ago the two young talents made the quarterfinals down under, this year they fell during the first week of play.
The sixth-seeded Auger Aliassime struggled early in the tournament. Despite beating fellow-Canadian and friend Vasek Pospisil in the opening round, he then dropped the first two sets of his second-round encounter against Alex Molcan before correcting course and taking the match in five. In the round of sixteen against 21-year-old Jiri Lehecka, Felix didn’t have his usual mojo and was defeated 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(2), 7-6(3). Fans of FAA will surely see him bounce back soon as he’s earned his place near the top of the ATP rankings.
Shapovalov meanwhile was seeded 20th in the draw and can hold his head up high after a narrow defeat in five sets against the 10th seeded Hubert Hurkacz. Shapo called the loss “a heartbreaker” afterwards but has nothing to be ashamed of given how close the match was.