Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and the race for grand slam No 23

Whatever happens next in the career of Novak Djokovic, it is safe to say there will never again be a grand slam tournament like this year’s Australian Open. With his emotions pushed to the brink by his return to Australia, Djokovic’s extraordinary release after defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final was the moment he let everything out, leaving what had been the toughest four weeks of his life behind him.

He had managed to overcome it all. Winning his 10th Australian Open and 22nd grand slam was the biggest victory of his life, but not because of its historic significance. Physically, he had never entered a grand slam in worse condition. Mentally, he had never been dealt a more challenging hand before a major tournament. And yet, Djokovic has rarely played better than the level he reached upon his return to Melbourne.

In an ominous warning to his rivals and challengers, he has never been as motivated for what lies ahead, either. He has struck to move level with Rafael Nadal on 22, as the grand slam race took another twist. The idea of Djokovic and Nadal meeting at the French Open with a 23rd title on the line was the talk of Melbourne Park after the Serbian extended his unprecedented spell of dominance on the Rod Laver Arena. “You still have these two guys battling,” said Goran Ivanisevic, Djokovic’s coach. “This was Novak’s home court, and now we go to Rafa’s home court in this handball match of 22-22.”

Djokovic remains unbeaten in 10 Australian Open finals (Getty Images)
Djokovic remains unbeaten in 10 Australian Open finals (Getty Images)

And so all eyes turn to Roland Garros, where defeating a fully fit Nadal is among the greatest challenges in sport, as intimidating a task as beating Djokovic on Rod Laver Arena. Djokovic’s 10 Australian Open titles are only eclipsed by Nadal’s 14 French Opens, and when they met on the Paris clay in the quarter-finals last season it was the Spaniard who prevailed in a classic duel. The return of Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old who was unable to defend his world No 1 ranking after missing the Australian Open due to injury, adds another intriguing sub-plot.

If it wasn’t for Alcaraz’s injury, Melbourne may have staged the first grand slam battle between Djokovic and the US Open champion. With the exception of Daniil Medvedev, the next generation have been unable to dislodge Djokovic on the grand slam stage, struggling to keep pace with his faultless game or exert enough pressure to defeat him over five sets. Tsitsipas is in many ways a symbol of the challenge they are facing. The Greek arrived into his first Australian Open final playing a confident and self-assured game, backed by a resilient mindset and fuelled by good vibes. Against Djokovic he found those in short supply, and the 24-year-old has now lost their last 10 meetings.

In a further blow to the ever-strengthening gathering pack, Djokovic is also showing no signs of slowing down. “Of course I am motivated to win as many slams as possible,” he said, in response to a question that referenced not just the men’s race, but also Margaret Court’s all-time grand slam record of 24 singles titles. “At this stage of my career, these trophies are the biggest motivational factor of why I still compete. That’s the case without a doubt. Physically I can keep myself fit. Of course, 35 is not 25, even though I want to believe it is. But I still feel there is time ahead of me.”

Ivanisevic, the former Wimbledon champion, has a timely habit of popping up after Djokovic’s triumphs to put what is happening in this remarkable era of men’s tennis into perspective. While Djokovic had been guarded throughout the Australian Open, particularly when asked about the hamstring injury that disrupted his early rounds, Ivanisevic revealed how serious a threat it was to his tournament. “Let me put it like this,” he began. “I don’t say 100 per cent, but 97 per cent of the players on Saturday when you get the results of the MRI, you go straight to the referee’s office and pull out of the tournament. But not him. He is from another space.”

Djokovic won arguably his most satisfying Australian Open yet after the vaccine controversy last year (Getty Images)
Djokovic won arguably his most satisfying Australian Open yet after the vaccine controversy last year (Getty Images)

Djokovic’s struggles with his hamstring unlocked something else in his game, as well, to add to the fire that his return to Australia was fuelled by. “When he got injured, he needed to be more aggressive,” Ivanisevic explained. “He stepped up and he was smacking forehands unbelievably. Probably the best two weeks of forehands that I ever saw in his life.”

“In terms of the quality, it’s honestly some of the best tennis I’ve played on this court,” Djokovic said. “Maybe top two, three of all time of performances on slams in general, particularly here.” Djokovic referenced 2011 and 2015 as the years where he had previously reached this level. In those seasons he won three of the four grand slams and the way he left his opponents not only beaten in Melbourne but dazed and confused, as if encountering tennis from another dimension, suggests he is ready to embark on another sweeping run through the field.

Crucially, it gives Nadal something to fight for, which is when the Spaniard is at his most dangerous. It’s his lifeblood, and for Nadal the race to get ready for the French Open and be in the position to face Djokovic, fully fit, is as important as the race to 23 itself. After suffering a hip flexor injury during the Australian Open, he will look to time his recovery for the start of the clay court season and add another chapter to their extraordinary story. Nadal will turn 37 during the French Open; Djokovic will be 36 by then. “The battle is there,” Ivanisevic said. “These two guys, they’re going to have the final word.”