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Djokovic, the Master of Melbourne, has Federer and Nadal in his sights For The History books • The Australian Open Tennis Won

Novak Djokovic lifts the Norman Brooks Challenge Cup after defeating Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open final at Melbourne Park. EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS

By Alix Ramsay

Game on. Nine Australian Open titles, 18 grand slam trophies – Novak Djokovic is hunting down his three greatest rivals: Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and history.

By beating Daniil Medvedev 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 on Sunday night, he claimed one chapter in the record books as his very own: his victory puts him so far ahead at the top of the rankings ladder that come March 8, he will still be in pole position, no matter what happens between now and then. And when that day comes, Djokovic will have spent 311 weeks as the world No.1, moving past the all-time leader – one R. Federer of Switzerland.

As he has been moving closer to Federer and Nadal and their 20 major titles apiece, the ranking record has been his major goal. Last year’s U.S. and French Opens were huge disappointments for the Serb so the aim was to finish the year as No.1 for the sixth time and equal Pete Sampras’s record. But as he did it, his eye was always on Federer. Now he is sure to overtake the Mighty One, his focus has switched back to the grand slams: he wants more of them. Many more. As his coach, Goran Ivanisevic put it: “Now the chase is beginning.”

Novak Djokovic winning his ninth Australian Open title. EPA-EFE/JAMES ROSS

“Now, after achieving the historic No.1 for the longest weeks at No.1, it’s going to be a relief for me,” Djokovic said, “because I’m going to focus all my attention on slams mostly. When you are going for No.1 rankings, you kind of have to be playing the entire season and you have to be playing well, you have to play all the tournaments.

“My goals will adapt and will shift a little bit, which means that I will have to adjust also my calendar – not have to, but I will have an opportunity to do that which, as a father and a husband, I’m really looking forward to that.

“Judging by what we’re seeing around the world, having family on the road with me will be a very difficult task, because if I’m going to travel around, I have to take my coaches and everything, and we have rules in place that don’t allow really more people than I think two people on the tournaments to travel with you, other than slams.”

If the rest of the field think that means they can relax – the longer Djokovic plays happy families at home, the more they have a chance to win – they are sadly mistaken. His jolly jab at the younger lads before the final, his statement that he had no intention (and neither had Roger or Rafa) of giving the next generation a look in, was suddenly deadly serious on Sunday.

“He’s just playing unbelievable tennis…he’s the king of Melbourne,” said Daniil Medvedev of Novak Djokovic. EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS

Medvedev had been playing brilliantly for the past three and a half months. He had not lost a match since the end of October and on his way to the Melbourne final, he had been ruthless in all but one round. And then Djokovic dismantled him; he took the tall Russian apart piece by piece and left him in bits. This was all the proof anyone needed to see that the Big Three are still in a league of their own – and in that league, Djokovic is unstoppable in Melbourne just as Rafa is unstoppable in Paris.

“[The next generation] have definitely the quality to reach the heights of major tournament trophies,” Djokovic said. “They’ve proven that. Dominic has won it in US Open.

“I think just Roger, Rafa and myself have managed to always play our best tennis at slams. We have the experience of knowing what to do, how we can win matches in best-of-five on different surfaces. I think that’s made it more challenging for guys that are in the next generation, up-and-coming.

“Roger, Rafa, myself are still there for a reason. We don’t want to hand it to them and we don’t want to allow them to win slams. I think that’s something that is very clear. Whether you communicate that message or not, we are definitely sending that vibe out there. I’m sticking to that.”

As for his injury problems, he finally admitted that he did, indeed, have a torn muscle (the abdominal oblique, to be precise). From the third round nine days ago, he and his team all had Covid tests before every match just to be on the safe side. If he lost or had to pull out, they would all have their test results ready to allow them to fly home. They clearly weren’t too confident about the future. Not that he showed any hint of an injury issue against Medvedev. So swift and so complete has been his recovery that many have questioned whether he was injured at all.

“I know there’s been a lot of speculations,” Djokovic said, “people questioning whether I’m injured, how can I recover so quickly, it’s impossible to do that. I get it. I mean, look, everyone is entitled for their own opinion, and everybody has the freedom and the right to say what they want, criticise others. I just felt like it was a bit unfair at times. But, hey, it’s not the first nor the last time.”

He has come in for a lot of stick since he arrived in Australia be it for his views on the quarantine conditions (players should be moved to private houses with tennis courts) or over his secrecy about the true nature of his injury (he would only talk about when the tournament was over). But he seems used it even if he does not like it.

“Everyone who has the stage has the right to say what they want to say,” he said. “It’s a matter on my side whether I’m going to react or not, in which way I’m going to react. I didn’t allow it to hinder my performance. I think winning the trophy is in a way my answer.

“Of course it hurts. I’m a human being like yourself, like anybody else. I have emotions. I don’t enjoy when somebody attacks me in the media openly and stuff. Of course, I cannot say I don’t care about it or whatever. Of course, it does. I have to be honest.”

Medvedev, though, has nothing for praise for the champion who befriended him years ago when the Russian was a lowly ranked hopeful and was invited to practice with Djokovic in Monte Carlo. So far, he has reached two major finals and lost to Nadal (just) in New York and now the world No.1 in Melbourne. He does not think that he can come close to being like either man.

Serbian fans waved their nation’s flag and chanted Novak Djokovic’s name after the world No. 1 won his 18th Grand Slam crown. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT

“To win nine Australian Opens, I need to win every year until I’m 34,” Medvedev said. “I mean, I believe in myself, but I don’t think I’m able to do it. Same with Rafa. I mean, 13 Roland Garros… We’re talking about some Cyborgs of tennis in a good way. They’re just unbelievable.”

And that is just the way Djokovic likes it. He may be planning to play less in the future but when he does play, he still intends to win.

“I think about winning more slams and breaking records, of course,” Djokovic said. “Of course, I do. And most of my attention and my energy from this day forward, until I retire from tennis, is going to be directed in majors, trying to win more major trophies.”

As Goran said: “Now the chase is beginning.” Game on.