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With 22nd major, Novak Djokovic bolsters his case as best men’s tennis player ever

Novak Djokovic defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas to win the Australian Open on Sunday. (Hannah Mckay/Reuters)
6 min

For nearly three hours, Novak Djokovic was a master of precision, power and composure, blasting nearly every ball in the spot he intended during Sunday’s Australian Open final.

But once he grasped the magnitude of his 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-5) victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas — tying Rafael Nadal with his men’s record 22nd Grand Slam championship and reclaiming his No. 1 world ranking despite a leg injury that was worse than he initially acknowledged — Djokovic broke down in tears. He wept upon clambering into his guest box to celebrate with his coach, mother and support team. His sobbing continued courtside, where he buried his head in a towel as his torso convulsed.

Djokovic’s triumph represented far more than statistics could convey.

It represented a comeback for a champion who had been deported by Australian officials one year earlier — and vilified by many in the country — because of his refusal to comply with the country’s coronavirus vaccine mandates. That choice cost him dearly last season, barring him as well from contesting the U.S. Open and the North American hard-court season that preceded it.

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All that, as well as the hamstring injury he aggravated mid-tournament that made him question whether he could continue, was the subtext when Djokovic characterized it as one of the most challenging competitions of his life as he accepted the trophy after slipping on a new warmup jacket with a “22” on the chest.

“Not playing last year, coming back this year …” Djokovic said, pausing to thank everyone who made him feel welcome again in Australia. “This is probably, I would say, the biggest victory in my life, considering the circumstances.”

Against the fourth-ranked Tsitsipas, a challenger 11 years younger, Djokovic left no doubt who was the superior player. And in the minds of those bent on ranking perfection across generations, he also bolstered his career-long quest to be regarded as the greatest to play the game.

Tsitsipas, 24, willingly bestowed the title in defeat while thanking Djokovic for setting the bar so high.

“You make me a better player when I am on the court,” Tsitsipas said. “I have had the privilege to play a lot of high-intensity games, but these are the matches I have been working my entire life for. . . . I think he is the greatest that has ever held a tennis racket.”

Sunday’s final was a reprise of the 2021 French Open championship match, in which Djokovic stormed back from a two-set deficit to vanquish Tsitsipas in a gut-spilling ordeal that lasted more than four hours.

There was plenty of reason to expect a comparable thriller Sunday in Melbourne.

Tsitsipas is stronger physically and mentally than he was when he contested his first Grand Slam final in June 2021. He arrived in Melbourne with an unbeaten record to start 2023 and playing the best tennis of his career.

The problem he faced was that Djokovic could say the same.

Tsitsipas’s strengths are his big serve and massive forehand. In Djokovic’s case, every aspect of his game is a strength. He boasts the best service return in tennis, and his own serve is a weapon, too. He is an unflagging defender yet ruthless on offense as well. He can dictate from the baseline but ably cover every patch of the court, from the backcourt to the net and from one sideline to the other.

At 35, Djokovic has conceded nothing to age. Assiduous with his diet, yoga, training and recovery regimen, Djokovic has forged his 6-foot-2, 170-pound frame into a model of continuous improvement.

It was simply too much for Tsitsipas to counter, just as it was for the six challengers Djokovic routed to reach Sunday’s final. Djokovic conceded just one set in the process, with his longest match lasting 3 hours 7 minutes.

Cheered by raucous supporters who packed Rod Laver Arena, Djokovic didn’t need quite that long to dispatch a frequently misfiring Tsitsipas in 2:56.

From the outset, Tsitsipas struggled with his normally reliable first serve and forehand.

He was bidding to become the first Greek to win a Grand Slam title and ascend to No. 1. But he was broken early in the opening set, and Djokovic quickly seized command.

With coaching now permitted, Tsitsipas’s father, Apostolos, who is also his son’s coach, was a voluble courtside presence.

Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, chose not to attend for a second consecutive match after a controversy erupted when he was photographed with Vladimir Putin supporters Wednesday. His absence, Djokovic conceded afterward, posed another challenge to his mental focus.

Tsitsipas settled in and put more muscle into the rallies in the second set. But he flubbed a backhand volley with a chance to set up a break point and take a 5-3 lead.

Two points from leveling the match at one set each, Tsitsipas flubbed a forehand. And then wayward and misjudged forehands plagued him in the tiebreaker, which handed Djokovic a two-sets-to-none lead.

The third set unfolded much the same. Djokovic held the upper hand in most rallies, served well throughout and played his best, as is his custom, on the must-have points.

Tsitsipas’s 40 winners were offset by 42 unforced errors — many coming at pivotal moments.

Djokovic finished with 36 winners and 22 unforced errors.

Tsitsipas was philosophical, if visibly disappointed, during his post-match news conference.

“I did everything possible,” he said. “Novak is a player that pushes you to your limits. I don’t see this as a curse. I don’t see this as something, like, annoying.”

Rather, Tsitsipas explained, he viewed Djokovic’s excellence as benefiting the sport and the rivals who want to reach his level.

“Getting our [butts] kicked is for sure a very good lesson every single time,” Tsitsipas said.

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Djokovic on Monday will reclaim the No. 1 ranking he has already held for a record 373 weeks but lost to Russia’s Daniil Medvedev in June.

He will enter the French Open in late May knotted with Nadal, his greatest rival, with 22 Grand Slam titles apiece. Nadal has made the red clay of Roland Garros his fiefdom, notching 14 titles, in the same way Djokovic has claimed Australia’s hard courts as his domain.

Nadal, 36, was last seen limping out of Rod Laver Arena with a hip injury suffered in a second-round loss to American Mackenzie McDonald. His recovery is projected to sideline him for six to eight weeks.

“Of course I am motivated to win as many Slams as possible,” Djokovic said after Sunday’s win. “At this stage of my career, these trophies are the biggest motivational factor of why I still compete. . . . I never really liked comparing myself to others, but of course it’s a privilege to be part of the discussion as one of the greatest players of all time.”