By Giri Nathan
Tennis is back in Australia and Novak Djokovic is the overwhelming favorite to win it all. That could have been the opening line of this newsletter had I sent it any January over the past dozen years. Might as well queue it up for next year, too. Djokovic hasn’t lost a tennis match in the country since the year 2018, when, right before resigning himself to an elbow surgery that restored him to form, he was dispatched in the fourth round of the Australian Open by Hyeon Chung. (Remember him? We do!) Since that loss, Djoker snagged the Open titles in 2019, 2020, 2021; he also won all his ATP Cup matches in those years and the tune-up in Adelaide last week; that adds up to 34 consecutive wins. In his career, he is 102–10 in Australia. When he is down under, on the hard courts, baking in the summer sun, he is generally pretty happy.
Sharp tennis historians, or anyone somehow capable of recalling events that took place a year ago, will recall that Novak Djokovic’s 2022 visit was historically unhappy. That year he was met by the only foe able to prevent him from winning the title in Melbourne: various immigration authorities. And it still went a full five sets—medical exemption for unvaccinated visitors, visa cancellation on arrival, overturning of the cancellation, re-cancellation of the visa, a rejected bid for judicial review—before his eventual deportation. Even if you’re one to derive some karmic satisfaction from this, it must be acknowledged that this was a total organizational disaster. What would have been a three-year ban from the country was instead overturned in November, and Djokovic was granted a visa for 2023.
If I were designing a sequence of unfortunate events intended to inflate a vaccine skeptic’s martyr complex, it’d probably look something like the saga above. Speaking to Tennis Majors last week, Djokovic reflected on last year’s debacle: “The main takeaways from everything that happened are patience, belief in yourself and adhering to principles you care about. I have experienced difficult moments in Australia and the aftermath: being attacked from all angles, basically from the whole world, but I expected something like that, considering how the society works these days—there always has to be one individual who is guilty of something. That is how the games are played and things are hidden.” Okay, sir.
Whatever bitter aftertaste he had has since been washed away by a week in Adelaide spent goofing around with local fans and thriving on court, as if last year never happened. Always a master of regulating his effort level, the world No. 4 eased into the week with a low-gear win over Constant Lestienne, stepping up just enough to survive a feisty Quentin Halys. Degree of difficulty spiked in the quarterfinal against Daniil Medvedev, who had looked sharp coming into their matchup. But this was no lengthy epic between those two hard-court adepts. Djokovic swept Medvedev aside in straight sets, dispelling one of his few genuine threats. (The others aren’t faring too well either: Carlos Alcaraz will rest until February with a leg injury, and Rafa Nadal has had a shaky start to the year and a brutal Australian Open draw.) Then, in the semifinal, Djokovic escorted Denis Shapovalov to an identical 6–3, 6–4 exit.
Of his opponent in the final, the young Seb Korda, Djokovic said he played “beautiful-looking tennis,” and hoped to “make it ugly tomorrow.” He did not entirely succeed: The 22-year-old, unlocking his best tennis to date, earned one match point in the second set of their title fight. Djokovic saved it with a backhand approach and smash, held steady to take the tiebreak, and sprung his usual trap late in the third to seize the trophy. Now his only worry in the world is a lingering hamstring thing that cut short a recent practice match. If it passes, he will win. If it doesn’t, he probably will win anyway. Such is the state of Novak Djokovic, just a year removed from deportation: back on top, down under, like always.
Above: Novak aims high in Melbourne during his exo with Nick Kyrgios this Week. (Getty)