By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Novak Djokovic will look to rise above the drama that has engulfed him at Melbourne Park and claim a record-extending 10th Australian Open title on Sunday in a generational clash against Stefanos Tsitsipas.
A year after being deported from Australia on the eve of the Grand Slam for lacking COVID-19 vaccination, Djokovic has battled a hamstring strain, heckling spectators and a media storm over his father mixing with fans toting banned Russian flags at the tennis.
In handling everything within his control, though, Djokovic has been supreme.
The Serb’s dominant semi-final victory over American Tommy Paul on Friday stretched his winning streak at the event to a record 27 in the professional era, eclipsing Andre Agassi’s 26-match run between 2000 to 2004.
Never beaten at Melbourne Park after reaching the semis, fourth seed Djokovic is rated an unbackable favourite to triumph again under the floodlights at Rod Laver Arena.
Despite that, the decider presents possibly the best matchup fans could have hoped for following the early exit of injured champion Rafa Nadal.
It offers a rematch of the dramatic 2021 French Open final, in which Djokovic came back from two sets down to snatch the title and leave Greek Tsitsipas heartbroken.
Not that the match was fresh in Djokovic’s memory.
“I think he (Tsitsipas) has never played a (Grand Slam) finals, am I wrong?” Djokovic asked incredulous reporters this week.
The stakes are sky-high for both players.
At 35, Djokovic needs one major title to draw level with 36-year-old Nadal’s 22 in the all-time Grand Slam race. Meanwhile third seed Tsitsipas is desperate to become the first Greek to win a Grand Slam crown, having put the nation on the tennis map.
Whoever wins will take the world number one ranking from Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz, who missed the tournament through injury.
At 24, Tsitsipas may feel his time has come. He buried his semi-final hoodoo at Melbourne Park against Russian bruiser Karen Khachanov in four sets on Friday after falling three times previously at the hurdle.
“These are the moments I’ve been working hard for,” said Tsitsipas.
“To be able to play in finals that have a bigger meaning than just the final.”
The atmosphere promises to be electric, and possibly volatile as tension builds.
Melbourne’s strong Greek community, the most populous outside Greece itself, will be in full voice at Rod Laver Arena.
They will rival the army of Serbian supporters who have gorged on Djokovic’s success since his first title at Melbourne Park as a 20-year-old in 2008.
Neutral fans, meanwhile, could well rally behind Tsitsipas in the hope of seeing a genuine contest.
With a huge serve, thumping groundstrokes and comfort on all areas of the court, Tsitsipas has the weapons to trouble anyone on tour. Whether he has the endurance and mental fortitude to dislodge iron man Djokovic remains to be seen.
For all the huff and puff of the younger generation, only Daniil Medvedev has managed to beat the Serb in a completed match at a hardcourt Grand Slam since a shock fourth round loss to Chung Hyeon in the 2018 Australian Open.
Not even Nadal or retired great Roger Federer have ever bested Djokovic in a final at Melbourne Park, and the Serb is hell-bent on extending that incredible record.
“Of course, I have professional goals and ambitions. Those are Grand Slams and being number one in the world,” said Djokovic.
“So I do want to make more history of this sport, no doubt.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)