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Novak Djokovic is now ‘surely unrivalled’ in tennis history

Novak Djokovic faced quite a few extra challenges in his bid to be crowned 2023 Australian Open men’s champion, said Christopher Clarey in The New York Times. For a man who was deported on the eve of last year’s tournament for failing to get a Covid vaccination, a return to Australia “would have been plenty to process on its own”. But the Serb had to contend with much else besides: not just the hamstring injury he carried into the tournament, and which visibly affected him in the early rounds, but also the “latest controversy sparked by his father, Srdjan, who posed for photos with flag-carrying Russian supporters inside Melbourne Park”. 

Remarkably, none of this appeared to affect Djokovic’s performance on court, said Mike Dickson in the Daily Mail. The 35-year-old lost just one set en route to the final, and then duly claimed his tenth title in Melbourne on Sunday with a 6-3, 7-6, 7-6 victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas. “I would say this is probably the biggest victory of my life, considering the circumstances,” Djokovic said afterwards. 

Djokovic’s win was a reminder of how “complete and foolproof” his game is, said Tumaini Carayol in The Guardian. Many players cannot function when a particular stroke misfires, yet Djokovic’s tennis has so many “built-in contingencies”, he can still succeed even when one strength fails. His backhand in Melbourne was a case in point: it’s “one of the best strokes in the history of the sport”, yet throughout the tournament “it was actually off”, and he hit far more errors from that wing than usual. It barely mattered, because Djokovic compensated “by simply dominating with forehand”. In the final, he thoroughly outplayed Tsitsipas’s forehand, generally considered one of the best in tennis. “I never saw him hitting better forehands before,” noted Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanišević. 

Perhaps because Djokovic is widely held not to be “as likeable as his peers”, there has long been a tendency, when he wins matches, to emphasise his opponents’ failings rather than his own strengths, said Matthew Syed in The Times. When he overcame Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2019, all the talk was of the “vulnerability of the Swiss player on the big points”. In the Australian Open final of 2019, his 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 demolition of Rafael Nadal was cast as a story of “Nadal’s collapse rather than the man who was its author”. Given that Djokovic has now won 22 grand slam titles (level with Nadal; two ahead of Federer), the time has come to reflect again “on his place in the pantheon”. He has positive head-to-head records against all his main rivals, has won every slam at least twice, and is again world No. 1. Judged solely on the qualities he brings to the court, he is “surely unrivalled” in tennis history. 

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