Novak Djokovic. Mental giant.
Of all the takeaways from this year’s Australian Open, this is arguably the most significant as the world No.1 cemented his place in tennis history with an Open-era record fifth Australian Open crown on Sunday night.
Throughout the fortnight at Melbourne Park, Djokovic failed to convince. He never played with the sustained consistency and intensity for which he is famed. He scratched his way to victories against Fernando Verdasco and Gilles Muller in rounds three and four. He overcame listless play and swathes of errors in the semifinals to see off defending champion Stan Wawrinka.
There were times he gasped for air. Times he appeared to be struggling with physical ailments. He frequently fired exasperated or desperate looks at his entourage throughout the latter rounds of the tournament. He was bothered by a nasty grazed thumb after a fall in the final against Andy Murray.
Yet when it counted, he was impenetrable.
In the semis, Wawrinka simply couldn’t stay with the streaking Serb, falling to a 6-0 defeat in the fifth set. Ditto Murray, who after winning the second set and breaking serve to move ahead 2-0 in the third, lost 12 of the next 13 games – and the last nine straight – and wilted while the top seed recovered from a physically shaky patch of play and began to relax and swing freely.
Winning final sets to love against some of your toughest rivals in the two biggest matches of the tournament? It’s extraordinary.
“I can’t say how proud I am. That (result) is going to serve definitely only as a great deal of inspiration for the rest of my career,” he said.
“In these particular matches and circumstances, mental strength probably plays the most important role. In winning those matches, you need to be able to find that inner strength, mental, physical, emotional, especially when you’re down in the finals and when you’re playing a top rival.
“There’s a lot of things that can influence your state of mind. Of course, it’s not always possible to be 100 per cent concentrated for three-and-a-half hours. But it’s important to keep going because you fall many times, but mental strength allows you to keep going.”
Djokovic’s mental strength was something that was being called into question last season. He fell in the Roland Garros final to clay-court nemesis Rafael Nadal, making it his third straight loss in his last three Grand Slam final appearances. Appearing to be slightly psychologically tortured, there was also the theory that impending marriage and fatherhood were potential distractions for the 27-year-old.
A five-set victory in the 2014 Wimbledon final over Roger Federer dispelled all such chatter and banished those lingering mental demons.
Six months later, he holds another major crown.
“I think it has deeper meaning, more intrinsic value now to my life because I’m a father and a husband. It’s the first Grand Slam title I won as a father and a husband. Just feel very, very proud of it,” he explained.
“I try to stay on the right path and committed to this sport in every possible way that I have had in the last couple of years and try to use this prime time of my career really where I’m playing and feeling the best at 27. This is why I play the sport, you know, to win big titles and to put myself in a position to play also for the people around me.
“Getting married and becoming a father in the last six months was definitely something that gave me a new energy, something that I never felt before. And right now everything has been going in such a positive direction in my life. I’m so grateful for that. So I try to live these moments with all my heart.”
With an all-time-high crowd attendance of more than 700,000 fans and an Open-era record sixth women’s crown for Serena Williams securing her a 19th major victory, Australian Open 2015 has been defined by both the creation and re-writing of history.
With his four-set victory over Murray, it’s worth considering Djokovic’s place within it. A sparkling record of five titles at Melbourne Park from five finals moves him into second place behind six-time winner Roy Emerson on the all-time list of Australian Open winners. It’s his eighth major championship, drawing him level with legends Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Ken Rosewall and Fred Perry.
And it arguably establishes him as the best hardcourt player of his generation, a title he now lays claim to over another legitimate contender in Murray; Djokovic has now defeated his Scottish rival in all three Australian Open finals they have contested.
“(Tonight) it was a similar situation (against Murray) two years ago in Australian Open final, 2013, where two sets went over two hours, was a similar battle. Then I felt that I had some physical edge over him in that match. That was in back of my mind. That was something that kept me going,” Djokovic revealed.
“And obviously the importance of the moment, being in finals of Grand Slam. I didn’t want to give up. I try never to give up. Even though I went through this moment (of physical distress), I believed that I’m going to get that necessary strength. I’m going to have to earn it, and that’s what I did.”
He believed, and he emerged victorious. Such a result will only serve to bolster his confidence further. And moving forward, this could mean many more Grand Slam wins.
Novak Djokovic, the mental giant, may one day also be considered a giant within the tennis pantheon.
> re-live Australian Open 2015 at the tournament website