The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Novak Djokovic, still dominant at the Australian Open, claims his 18th Grand Slam singles title

Novak Djokovic defeated Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open men’s final. (Mark Dadswell/AP)

One day, Novak Djokovic’s dominance at the Australian Open will come to an end. Such is the reality of time — the opponent that champion athletes can stave off but never defeat.

On Sunday at Melbourne Park, Djokovic left no doubt that his time is still now at Rod Laver Arena, routing Daniil Medvedev, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2, to win his ninth Australian Open title. More significantly, Djokovic claimed his 18th Grand Slam, closing the gap on rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who are knotted at a men’s record 20 major titles each.

Against a Russian challenger who was riding a 20-match winning streak, Djokovic, 33, staged a breathtaking display of pace, power and precision to dispatch Medvedev with ruthless efficiency. Djokovic won 14 of the last 18 games and roared in triumph less than two hours after the first ball was struck, keeping intact his record of having never lost in an Australian Open final.

Djokovic’s relative ease in claiming the title Sunday underscored his very real prospect of matching or surpassing Nadal and Federer. That’s not to say Nadal won’t be favored to win a 14th French Open in June or that a ninth Wimbledon title is beyond Federer’s reach at 39.

“Roger and Rafa inspire me,” Djokovic said. “I think as long as they go, I’ll go. In a way it’s a race [of] who plays tennis more, I guess, and who wins more. It’s a competition between us in all areas. But I think that’s the very reason why we are who we are — because we do drive each other, we motivate each other, we push each other to the limit.”

Naomi Osaka, the bright star of women’s tennis, claims another Australian Open title

Djokovic’s dominance Sunday also underscored the gap that remains between the sport’s Big Three — Federer, Nadal and Djokovic — and younger rivals seeking to dethrone them, particularly at Grand Slam events.

Said Medvedev, 25, an astute tactician and delightful interview: “We are talking about some cyborgs of tennis — in a good way. They are just unbelievable.”

The men’s championship match was contested before a raucous crowd of roughly 7,000 — about 50 percent of capacity under Australia’s strict coronavirus protocols — that sounded like a full house.

Over the past three months, the fourth-ranked Medvedev had beaten every man in the top 10 (except for Federer, who is on hiatus). He routed Djokovic in their most recent clash, in November at the ATP Finals in London, to lift his career record against the world No. 1 to 3-4.

For those reasons — as well as Medvedev’s powerful serve, blistering backhand and array of strokes and tactics — the 6-foot-6 Russian was the opponent Djokovic feared most, calling him “the man to beat” earlier in the week.

Djokovic’s path to the final was rocky. He narrowly averted a third-round loss, pushed to five sets by American Taylor Fritz, and suffered an abdominal injury that he revealed Sunday was a muscle tear.

He also smashed his racket during a physical quarterfinal against Alexander Zverev, drawing a warning from the chair umpire that conjured memories of his outburst at last year’s U.S. Open, where he was disqualified for blasting a ball in anger and inadvertently hitting a linesperson.

But he was all business Sunday.

Medvedev, the 2019 U.S. Open runner-up who was competing in his second major final, opened with palpable jitters, spraying errant groundstrokes to drop the first three games. But he righted himself after winning a long rally on a flubbed overhead by the Serb.

Although Medvedev’s strokes and tactics are varied and typically clever, Djokovic gave him scant opportunity to show much of that, being the aggressor and dictating the terms on nearly every point.

“I wanted to mix up things, to do something different,” Medvedev said. “He took all the time from me; [he] took all the advantage for his side straight away. For me, it felt like, [after] 30 minutes, I was holding the finalist’s trophy.”

Djokovic’s tactics were clear at the outset: wear down the lanky Medvedev, a dogged retriever, by yanking him all over the court and coaxing him to the net with drop shots to exploit his shaky volley. That worked exceptionally well on the fast, hard-court surface that accentuates Djokovic’s strengths — fierce offense, soul-crushing defense and, on Sunday, exceptional serving.

Medvedev rose to the challenge early, but the physical and mental toll became apparent as the match sped by. He and Djokovic traded service breaks to start the second set. After playing an error-strewn game and falling behind 2-5, Medvedev smashed his racket in frustration.

After losing the first two sets, Medvedev seemed to unravel mentally, moaning during points and muttering in between, and Djokovic romped. In the aftermath, Medvedev said he couldn’t delineate which played the biggest role in his defeat: his subpar performance (30 unforced errors), Djokovic’s exceptional showing or the fact that Djokovic’s standard prevented him from playing his best.

“During the match, I felt like I’m doing my best, but it’s not there,” Medvedev said.

Djokovic lauded Medvedev as a great person and player who, he noted, would certainly win a Grand Slam. He also thanked his trainer for getting him ready to play, alluding to the abdominal tear.

Completing the two-week event was a triumph for Tennis Australia, which staged the year’s first Grand Slam amid widespread uncertainty over whether hundreds of players and their teams could safely be brought to the country without reigniting a virus that has been largely contained.

Government-mandated protocols were strict. Three planeloads of players and coaches were forced to quarantine in their hotel rooms for two weeks because a fellow passenger had tested positive upon landing in Australia.

With the trophy in hand, Djokovic acknowledged the work of Tennis Australia in staging the tournament amid such difficult circumstances, a notable concession given his earlier pushback against the strict protocols.

He expanded in his post-match interview, calling it the most emotionally challenging Grand Slam he had contested, citing his injury and the two-week, pretournament quarantine. “It has been, least to say, a roller-coaster ride in the last four weeks,” he said. “A lot of suffering, a lot of sacrifice.”

He saved his final thanks for Rod Laver Arena and the court on which he has claimed half of his 18 Grand Slam titles.

“I love you each year more and more,” Djokovic said during his post-match interview as the crowd cheered. “The love affair keeps going.”

Read more on tennis:

Brewer: As Serena Williams nears the end, her greatness plays on in Naomi Osaka

Aslan Karatsev is the latest qualifier to go from unknown to Grand Slam party crasher

Meet the beloved former college coach tasked with staging the Australian Open in a pandemic