Melbourne Park is Novak Djokovic’s personal playground
Also, Djokovic’s Australian career can be divided into two. Yes, he won a freakish early title in 2008 – beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a rare grand slam final that involved neither Federer nor Nadal. But he also suffered opening-round losses on his first two appearances.
His life as a tennis immortal really began in 2011, shortly after Serbia’s transformative victory in the Davis Cup. From then on, he has actually gone a mind-boggling 57-3 at Melbourne Park.
Why is he so strong here? One explanation lies in his uncanny flexibility, which has earned him comparisons with American cartoon character Gumby. When pushed out wide to either wing, Djokovic often deploys a splits manoeuvre reminiscent of Kim Clijsters, another hardcourt genius. He saves a couple of steps each time – and over the course of a match, a tournament and a career, that tiny economy grows into millions in prizemoney.
Then there is the support from Melbourne’s powerful Balkan community. At Wimbledon and the US Open, Djokovic is often treated like a pantomime villain, particularly if he is up against his whipping boy Federer. But on Rod Laver Arena he is often the hero. And as much as he likes to paint himself as a Zen warrior, shutting out distractions and steering by instinct, Djokovic is ultimately the same as the rest of us. He loves to be loved.
That walk from the locker rooms through the tunnel and out under the circling seagulls must trigger a serotonin-laced rush of memories: so many goggle-eyed, shirt-tearing moments of triumph. It is true that the Djokovic family used to run their own ATP event in Belgrade. Yet the Australian Open has become his true home.
The starting point was that 2008 victory, which – from the perspective of the locals – came out of nowhere. When Federer and Nadal cruised into the last four, everyone assumed that they would be playing their fifth major final on Sunday night. In the semis, though, these two giants failed to muster a set between them.
As Jonathan Overend – the BBC’s tennis correspondent at the time – recalls now: “The Tsonga upset of Nadal was particularly destructive, a net-rushing masterclass. Some were even predicting he would be too aggressive and dominant for Djokovic.”
The charismatic Tsonga had been the story of the tournament ever since he ousted Andy Murray on day one – a bombshell that landed on British breakfast tables before the marmalade was out of the cupboard. All fortnight, Melbourne’s papers were full of photo spreads pointing out his resemblance to Muhammad Ali.
When the big night arrived, Tsonga won the first set, capitalising on a few early nerves from his opponent. But then Djokovic settled, finding the metronomic depth that makes him so hard to attack. The effect was like asking Bryson DeChambeau to play a pitch and putt. Shackled to the baseline, Tsonga could not leap, charge and volley in his usual carefree manner and soon wound up with the consolation prize after a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 defeat.
“If you’d suggested that day that Djokovic would go on to win 17 slams [and counting], and Tsonga would win none, we’d have laughed you down the Yarra,” says Overend. But then, there’s a huge contrast between these two men’s personalities. Tsonga is easygoing, lovable – a smeller of roses. Djokovic has an eternal chip on his shoulder. Which is why he has kept searching for additions to his game. A sharper serve. A niftier volley. A way of reliably peaking at the right moments.
This week, he returns to his personal precinct as the prohibitive favourite. Yes, Nadal remains the king of the red stuff; the Martian of tennis, perhaps. But on Melbourne’s blue planet, Djokovic has no peer.
The Telegraph, London