You can’t just reduce a great performance to a set of numbers. We are all heartily sick of data. We must always remember to elevate performances of beauty to their rightful place which is in the world of art, not statistics.
There are three artists at the top of men’s tennis and the first one to grace the tennis courts of the world was Roger Federer, then along came Rafa Nadal with his pirate shirt and long shorts. Tennis was blessed with the rivalry that would sustain the sport long into the future.
Not for a moment did I think another phenom would arrive to challenge their dominance but here he is: Novak Djovokic, in my view the best of the trio. Whether or not the amount of grand slams he wins will be more than the others only time will tell, but I suspect that will be the case.
By winning his ninth Australian Open — he is unbeaten in finals Down Under — he has amassed a total of 18 slams. That is two behind Roger and Rafa, but, with the Swiss having been out for a year and aged 39, I do wonder whether Federer can win another one away from grass.
Just as in 2019 he can put himself in position for a great run at Wimbledon but on clay and hard courts I suspect he will not be able to go all the way.
Nadal will be favourite to win a 14th French Open this summer. I never thought I would see such utter dominance over so many years, I would be interested to know of any other example of such pre-eminence in any professional field.
Does Novak have another five Australian Open wins in him? It seems nothing is impossible for the Serbian, who will surpass Federer for most weeks at world No.1 next month. His 311th week on top of the world.
Djokovic’s road to the final in Melbourne this year was the most challenging of any of his 28 grand- slam finals. He dropped five sets during his opening six matches yet that doesn’t tell the whole story. He has a tear in a stomach muscle which he learnt to deal with in each passing match. He had been a set down to Sascha Zverev in the quarter-final and with his concentration wavering and his temper flaring up, he went 1-4 down in the third set before smashing his racket, getting a warning — and then winning five games in a row. Typical. He was merciless in his semi-final with the qualifier on debut Aslan Karatsev and the final was just mesmeric. Medvedev had beaten 12 top-ten players during a 20-match winning streak and all the talk was he would draw on his experience of his US Open final five-set loss to Nadal in 2019 and that the changing of the guard was finally upon us.
The Russian explained all the pressure was on Djokovic as he was the one chasing Roger and Rafa in the history books. All fair enough but when the talking stopped, Djokovic was unstoppable. He went out to a three-love lead, got pulled back to 3-3 but then found yet more pace and accuracy off the ground.
At times his tennis was laughably brilliant as he reduced the now world No.3 Medvedev to a mumbling wreck. Djokovic’s heart must have been singing each time the previously untroubled Russian gestured despairingly to his wife Daria and coach Gilles Cervara.
You don’t have to love Novak — and at times it seems he really does want to be loved like Roger and Rafa. Djokovic has said and done things in the last year which are completely tone deaf in the midst of a pandemic.
His staging of tournaments in Serbia and Croatia last spring may have been well-intentioned but it was daft and dangerous. His formation of a new players group is also ill-conceived at a time when the tour is under unprecedented commercial pressure. Requesting that players might move to private accommodation during quarantine in Australia got a lot of people’s backs up and some of his views on vaccinations I think would be better kept to himself.
But all this falls away, for me, when I see the sport I love taken to the heights he reaches. He has now won six of his last seven slam finals (Nadal beat him at the French, naturally) and this was tournament victory 82.
So he now chases history, and by his own admission he is all about the major championships, so roll on the French Open in May where this maestro will look to paint another masterpiece on the terre battue of Paris and after that Wimbledon, where he is the defending champion from 2019. Do you think if he gets to 20, equal with Roger and Rafa, we should make these men stop, shake hands and give everyone else a chance?
Fil the love for Polasek and his magical rebirth
The Brits played well in doubles, where Jamie Murray reformed his successful partnership with Bruno Soares. They lost in the semi-final to defending champions Rajeev Ram and Britain’s Joe Salisbury, who were beaten in the final.
But the real story was 35-year-old Filip Polasek. After quitting tennis eight years ago with a back injury, the Slovakian was persuaded to return to the game by American doubles legend Mike Bryan.
Polasek, who had been coaching juniors for a living, has formed a winning partnership with Ivan Dodig, the Croat who was forced to sleep under a bridge or at the bus station when money was tight early in his career. They each received £170,000 for winning in Melbourne.
Polasek will return to Slovakia and a four-day-old daughter called Olivia-Victoria. His partner Karin made a deal he could only stay away and therefore miss the birth if he made the final. Karin said she could not promise anything but she would try to hold on to the baby until his return. Mum and daughter and dad are all doing very well.
Naomi’s a remarkable talent with story to match
SOMEONE else who can’t lose at the latter stages of grand slams is Naomi Osaka. The Australian Open is grand-slam victory No.4 and she has never lost a match from the quarter-finals onwards at one of the four major tournaments. Osaka hasn’t been beaten in a completed match in a whole year.
The rankings say Osaka is world No.2 but with the greatest respect to the world No.1 Ash Barty, Osaka is clearly the player to beat. Oddly, she has never advanced beyond round three of the French Open or Wimbledon. On grass this may be understandable because there is only a narrow window of play on the surface in the calendar but she is highly suited to clay and grew up in Florida playing on the American variety, which has slightly different characteristics than the red version.
Osaka was way too good for American Jennifer Brady in the final. The 25-year-old former UCLA player was the last of the 72 14-day quarantiners standing and had the advantage of adjoining rooms in the quarantine hotel with her trainer Daniel Pohl.
Osaka has the sporting world at her feet, she is already the world’s most marketable female athlete and it is not hard to see why. Firstly, she is winning everything but secondly her background is fascinating.
At a time when the world is acutely identity-aware, along comes a young woman with a Japanese mother, and an Haitian father who grew up in the US. She now represents Japan and is hoping to be at the Olympics in Tokyo. Her greatest attribute seems to be her serenity under pressure. You might remember her US Open final of 2018 against a very upset Serena Williams, Osaka just got on with the job, winning in straight sets and looking mildly bemused as 20,000 people, including Serena, lost the plot. Not since Monica Seles in 1991 has a woman won her first four grand-slam finals. Osaka appears to be a match player of the same calibre and for me there is no higher praise.
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