In unquestionably the best tournament of his life, Novak Djokovic wiped out Andy Murray 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 to win his second Australian Open. With an authoritative and airtight performance, the 23-year-old Serbian showed massive improvement in his game, his self-belief and his court stewardship.
Not only did he batter his childhood friend Murray in Sunday’s final, but he also took out Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals and 16-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer in the semifinals.
Since 2008, when he won his first Australian Open title, it’s been clear that he’s one of the best defensive players on the planet. But now, once he digs into rallies, he can maneuver himself inside the baseline, take control of the center of the court and dictate to the corners with big groundstrokes off both wings. His forehand, which has surpassed his backhand as his main weapon, has improved immensely, as have his first serve and return.
"When I got ahead in some games and even just in points, he was sticking up lobs that were landing on the baseline, passing shots that were very close to the lines," a bewildered Murray said. "So it was quite difficult to find parts of the court where I was getting free points from. He served well. He didn’t make many mistakes from the back of the court. He moved really, really well. He hit the ball very clean. That was it."
Yes it was, and it ended much quicker than most of the world thought it would, in 2 hours and 39 minutes, without so much as one single reasonable charge from the Scot. Many analysts will talk about Murray’s passivity in the match — and it’s certainly worth discussing — but what was more apparent was how self-assured Djokovic was in his game plan and how he never panicked.
While a world No. 3’s run to the title never can be considered stunning, it has to be recalled that he seriously struggled from the outset of 2010 until after Wimbledon. His life had become a bit chaotic, and his tennis clearly was suffering.
He had fallen in five sets to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the 2010 Aussie Open, had allowed Jurgen Melzer to come back from two sets down to upset him at the French Open, and then let Tomas Berdych put a beatdown on him at Wimbledon. His experiment with bringing in American coach Todd Martin to work with his longtime coach, Marian Vajda, had failed. All he had to show for his first seven months of work was a title in Dubai.
So he decided to make a change and it paid off. Djokovic, who has been traveling with a sports psychologist for almost a year now, made the decision to focus on his tennis when he was at tournaments and not get distracted by outside troubles.
"Something switched in my head, because I am very emotional on and off the court," said Djokovic, who lives in Monaco with his girlfriend, Jelena. "I show my emotions. This is the way I am. Everybody’s different. The things off court were not working for me. It reflected on my game, on my professional tennis career. But then, I settled some things in my head.
"It was all on me. I had to try to find the best possible solution and try to get back on the right track. It’s been a big mental struggle, because I was trying to separate my professional life from my more private life. If something isn’t working off court, then it’s going to reflect on the court. I managed to solve that problem. This is all part of life. To overcome the crisis and to stand up and try to still dedicate yourself to the sport was a big success for me as a person."
Now Djokovic can focus just on what he needs to do to win matches, rather than having a pack of people around chattering at him. The only two people allowed in the locker room with him prior to matches are Vajda and his physical trainer. He can sit there calmly and work out what strategies he needs to employ and then just go out and execute.
Against Berdych, Federer and Murray, he seemed to narrow the options within the big blue rectangular box. There were few balls that he couldn’t get back in play, and most of them had meaning. He says he doesn’t overthink points anymore and feels comfortable in big moments. That was clear during the entire fortnight, when he dropped only a set.
"This was a great match," he said. "From the start to the last point, I did what I intended of doing tactically. Physically I was very fit. I was aware that we will have long rallies and I will have a player who doesn’t miss a lot, a very talented player who is one of the best returners in the game. I had to step in. That was the key. When I had the chance to step in and try to move him around the court, that’s what I did."
Djokovic has reached the past two Grand Slam finals, losing a tight four-setter to No.1 Rafael Nadal in New York and then pounding No. 5 Murray. He’s within striking range of Federer’s No. 2 ranking (it appears he’ll be only 85 points behind the Swiss when the rankings are released on Monday), and although he’s still far behind Nadal, who won three Slams last year, the injured Spaniard has many more points to defend.
Even though he had only two weeks off after leading Serbia to the Davis Cup title in December, he believes he can play a full season without getting burned out, as he says he’s wiser about his scheduling and off-court activities.
Now his task is to keep throwing haymakers at Nadal and Federer during the winter and spring hardcourt season. On Sunday, he clearly distanced himself from Murray, and at the age of 23, with two Slam titles and a heck of a lot of confidence, he’s entrenched himself as a member of tennis’ Big 3. However, he wants a whole lot more than that.
"I don’t want to stop here," Djokovic said. "Definitely I want to keep my body healthy, fit and ready for some more challenges to come. I feel that I have a good game for all the surfaces. I have proven that."