January 30, 2020
Novak Djokovic is the last man standing among the old guard in Melbourne this year.
You get the feeling he will find a way to defeat whichever youngster he faces in the final on Sunday, too.
The man has a computer-brain when it comes to figuring out tennis solutions.
Just when you think Djokovic is in serious trouble, he discovers new and ruthless means with which to erode the beauty of his rival’s game.
And make no mistake, there is a dark and destructive beauty to Novak’s game too.
Roger Federer had achieved the impossible more than once in this extraordinary Australian Open.
This time there was no escape as Novak marched on 7-6 (7-1), 6-4, 6-3.
Beyond Wimbledon, it is hard to remember a tournament in which Federer did so many incredible things and yet still didn’t win the trophy.
The Swiss superstar’s performance early on was nothing short of staggering.
He struck the ball so sweetly, he moved like a 20-year-old, frighteningly timeless.
The injured man, the older man, the underdog. And yet for a while he was crushing the greatest player in the world with ease.
No one could quite believe what we were seeing. Not even with decades of Roger’s brilliance in the memory-bank.
The backhand nonchalantly flicked down the line while facing the wrong way was Federer’s highlight and brought gasps of delight.
That was on break point, too. It sent the 38-year-old into a 2-0 lead.
Federer seemed able to break at will. The Djokovic serve, never exceedingly powerful but usually lethal in its precision, was being ripped apart.
So even though Novak broke back, he was broken once more. And it should have happened a third time.
Yes, Federer was 4-1 up and then had Djokovic on the rack at 0-40 on the Serb’s serve. Three break points to go 5-1.
This is where the demons popped into Federer’s mind. As they do so often in the biggest moments against Novak.
Those three break points all passed the great man by.
No matter, we thought. Roger still served for the opening set at 5-3.
But this was where Federer’s renowned mental strength seemed to desert him.
He began with a double fault and followed with unforced errors to forfeit his advantage. Somehow we were back level in no time.
The temporary belittling Djokovic had suffered was consigned to history.
But then fresh hope for Federer. He survived a break point to stop the rot and lead 6-5. He was two points from taking the set on the Djokovic serve after all.
Back came Novak to force the breaker.
Djokovic struck early and, ultimately, fatally. Soon he was 5-1 up in the shoot-out.
And perhaps Federer was remembering that he should have been 5-1 up in games in that very same set.
The one-sided breaker was secured with the help of a deft and deadly backhand touch.
Djokovic proceeded to baffle Roger with ingenious geometry.
The last two points of the second set summed it up nicely. Federer couldn’t cope with Novak’s cross-court sorcery.
Even Djokovic seemed thrilled by the brilliance of his own cutting angle to secure his two-set advantage.
Understandably, Federer began to feel the effects of his leg injury and a gruelling tournament as his challenge slowly faded.
He had needed that first set so badly. The one that should have been his.
Novak broke in the third with a winner that flashed by so fast, all Roger could do was challenge in desperation.
It was to no avail. The ball had clipped the line. As it seems to do almost habitually off the Djokovic racquet.
Novak’s final service game wasn’t quite a formality. A winning Federer backhand and forehand, both drilled with fluent beauty, gave the crowd more memories.
But Djokovic was going to win it anyway.
Novak said later: ‘It could definitely have gone a different way with those break points in the first set but respect to Roger for coming out tonight when he was injured.
‘I was watching how he was moving instead of thinking about my own shots and that wasn’t the correct mindset but I relaxed into my own game in the end.’
The results, as usual, were devastating.