I woke up at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. I fished my cold, dry laundry out of the dryer downstairs and lugged it up four flights back to my room. I popped open my box of Frosted Mini Wheats for a three-hours-past-midnight snack, flipped open my laptop and logged into WatchESPN to see what I thought was going to be another six-hour, nail-biting, five-set classic Australian Open final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
What I saw was not what I was expecting, but it was just as gratifying.
Djokovic, already the modern king of Rod Laver, cemented his place in tennis history as the man with the most Australian Open titles with a straight-set 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 rout of Nadal. His drop shots were immaculate. He cut angles and hit spots that Nadal didn’t even bother moving a muscle for. No matter where Rafa placed a shot, Djokovic was there to absorb it and redistribute its power back tenfold. Nole started out the match with 16 straight service points won. He committed only nine errors to Nadal’s 28.
Djokovic has played at this level before; he last held all four major titles, dubbed the “Novak Slam,” in 2016, something his more mainstream Big 3 counterparts have never done. He’ll have a chance to do it again at Roland Garros this spring.
When Nadal is performing at peak level, some describe him as being in a “different dimension of tennis.” When Djokovic is on his game, though, he plays like he’s the best player tennis has ever seen.
Watching Novak dismantle Rafa was a bit disheartening to someone like me, who was mentally prepared to stay up for six hours watching another marathon match. But at the same time, it felt like I was watching a masterpiece. It was clear from the onset, even if Nadal sometimes gets off to slow starts, that Djokovic was going to dominate the match. Nadal was sluggish and frustrated. Novak was agile and hit every line exactly when he wanted to.
That’s just his game, though. Lots of angled, strategic shots that have to be executed perfectly. He has no deadly weapon; no killer shot, no special serve. He simply out-hustles his opponents by playing near-perfect tennis. He’s never been talked about like Nadal and Federer have, but Sunday morning’s match showed every reason he should be.
Rafa played some of his best tennis in his semifinal match against Tsitsipas, which makes his brutal loss to Djokovic all the more perplexing.
The Australian Open was filled with twists and turns, from Naomi Osaka becoming the first Asian to hold women’s world No. 1 to Serena Williams’ weird defeat in the quarterfinals to Roger Federer’s four-set, dramatic loss to Greek up-and-comer Stefanos Tsitsipas. Djokovic has been on a tear since winning the US Open in the summer, and he’s only getting better—he dropped just two sets in Melbourne. At the pace he’s playing, he’s well on his way to passing Federer’s 20 Grand Slam titles, or so Rod Laver himself says.
He’s right, though. Tennis is at a crossroads where the younger generation is rising fast while the older generation is starting to slow down. But Novak has showed no signs of stopping as the 2019 circuit begins, and he’s playing some of the most dominating tennis of his life.
Pat Cash, the retired Aussie who is considered one of the best net players in the sport, fawned over Djokovic’s performance, saying he’s “reopened the GOAT debate” between him, Nadal and Federer. Cash called Novak’s performance “superhuman” and that he’s “virtually unbeatable” when he plays like he did.
If anyone thought the GOAT debate was closed, there’s still years of tennis to be played. And Nole isn’t going anywhere.