Just when we thought the torch was being passed to a new generation, Novak Djokovic whacked the fiery beacon back over our heads and landed an on-the-line winner.
In the second and third set of the Australian Open final, the new tennis world could not come quick enough for Dominic Thiem, until it didn’t come at all.
Instead, Novak Djokovic won an eighth final on Rod Laver Arena and his 17th grand slam title, shaking off a time violation that prompted a dispute with the chair umpire and saw him slump a set down after the first three.
The final smoking ruin of the latest generation next final read 6-4 4-6 2-6 6-3 6-4.
But it was a close-run thing.
The world No.2 had started the match at his blistering, power-serving best – 30 minutes later he looked like a boxer punching only from memory.
Tennis fans have long expected one of the younger guns to break through at a grand slam event as ageing bodies and years of toil catch up with the ‘big three’ – Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Djokovic.
Still, no one heading to Melbourne Park on Sunday night really expected anything other than another Djokovic masterclass.
Perhaps that’s why – when the first chinks in Djokovic’s armour appeared in a first set that he had dominated – the crowd erupted in outpouring of support for his underdog opponent.
In that moment Djokovic’s plot was lost. At first he looked angry, soon he looked deflated: ‘What more do I need to do for you to cheer me?’ he seemed to be asking.
The big Serbian had broken his opponent’s serve in just the second game of the match and his power hitting maintained the advantage until Thiem broke back in the seventh game.
The world No.5 then held his serve to level up at 4-4 after 39 minutes and Rod Laver Arena exploded in joy at the possibility of a contest.
At 5-4, Djokovic had his first chance at set point, with Thiem fighting back one last time, before double-faulting under the pressure to give the world No.2 a 6-4 first set.
In the second set it was 26-year-old Thiem who set the early pace, breaking the rattled Serbian in the third game and holding the advantage for the rest of the set to win 6-4.
Feuding with chair umpire Damien Dumusois over his time violation when the scores were locked at 4-4 and looking at the crowd as if there was not a friend among the plastic chairs, the reigning champion lurched towards disaster.
His foot touch on Dumusois may yet see him fined, coming as it did with a furious spray: “You made yourself famous, well done man”.
The third set then was all Thiem, breaking his opponent in the first and third games and completing a 6-2 third-set rout.
The generational torch was being lit, if not passed.
Still, Thiem knows all about facing the big three of tennis on their favourite surfaces, having twice lost to Rafael Nadal on clay at the French Open.
Be it those past traumas – or the return of Djokovic’s uncompromising, mistake-free passing – Thiem was about to get another lesson as the champ regained his poise and power.
There’d be no fifth-set tiebreaker where luck and momentum could play a role.
Instead Djokovic broke early in the set, saw off a break-back point in the fourth game and served out the match 6-4.
In the aftermath, he acknowledged Thiem would eventually break through for a grand slam win, but also reminded the crowd that there was more to life than tennis.
“There was some devastating things that started 2020, with huge bushfires here in Australia,” he said on the victory dais.
“Conflicts in some parts of the world. People dying every day, you know. Obviously one person that I considered close in my life and was a mentor to me, Kobe Bryant passed away with his daughter.
I would just like to … say that this is a reminder to all of us that we should stick together more than ever now. Be with our families. Stay close to the people that love you, that care about you.
“Of course, we are part of professional sport. We compete and we try our best. But you know, obviously there are more important things in life and it is important to be conscious and humble about things that are happening around you.”
With veteran status comes wisdom.
Thiem also acknowledged that his time will come, saying it was “unreal what you are doing throughout all of these years … you and also two other guys, I think you brought men’s tennis to a complete new level”.
“I’m really proud and happy that I can compete in this times and this period of tennis and, well, I fell a little bit short today. But I hope that I can get soon revenge.”
Djokovic – aged just 32, which to be fair is only six years older than Thiem – now sits just two grand slams behind Nadal’s 19 and Roger Federer’s 20.
The latter pair themselves displayed cracks in their game this tournament, but enough to show that come New York, Paris and Wimbledon they’d have their day in the sun on their favourite tracks.
There may be some life in the old dogs yet.
Wildcards take their defeat to the bank
Australia’s wildcards in the doubles final, Max Purcell and Luke Saville, are taking defeat on Sunday in their stride.
The pair lost 6-4 6-2 to the American-British duo of Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury but the resulting rankings boost will see them gain automatic entry to this year’s grand slams, as well as a runners-up cheque for $380,000.
“This is our biggest payday by a mile,” Saville said post-match.
“We’ll let it sink in a bit, but we just want to get better as tennis players and these dollars will just go straight back into our tennis … This is really going to set our year up.
It’s definitely a massive achievement for us to do this. We’ve halved our ranking, we can play all the slams together, and we can choose a few other (tournaments) as well.
“A payday like this will definitely allow us to play a little freer.”
Playing Davis Cup and the Olympics in Tokyo is now on their radar, while Purcell also banked $90,000 prize money when he qualified for the singles main draw, where he was defeated in the first round by Italian Jannik Sinner.
It was the first time the 21-year-old from Sydney had made it into the main draw at a grand slam and he gave much of the credit for his improvement to new coach Nathan Healey.
“The work I’ve been able to put in with Nathan has been great and having him on the road for more weeks now, being able to afford him, will be great,” Purcell said.
Purcell and Saville were trying to become the first all-Australian pairing to win the Australian Open since Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge in 1997.
While they have ambitions to follow in the footsteps of the Woodies, they might want to work on their team nickname.
“We’re the ‘Slugs’, man,” Purcell said. “I think it works … I heard it a few times from the crowd today. I think we’re going to stick with that one.”
“I felt like we probably didn’t quite play our best today. But even if we did, I think it would have been [the] same result,” Saville said.
“If you would have told us we would have been in the final of the
Australian Open at a home grand slam, we probably would have sort of fell over there.”
I have a meme … #Melbourneweatherisfine
Given it was Sofia Kenin’s maiden grand slam singles win, one wonders who broke the news to her that the morning after the night before she’d have to don an evening dress and head to a Melbourne landmark.
Thankfully, it wasn’t another stinking hot, or pouring rain Melbourne day, so the Yarra River got the nod and the Australian Open Twitter account got the tourist shots the Victorian government is so keen on. Hashtag: #Melbourneweatherisfine
Quotable quote …
‘‘I’ve looked up to Maria Sharapova, Anna Kournikova … I feel like I got the feisty. I saw what it’s like … I have part of Russian stuff inside me, fight and fierce that I have.’’
– Australian Open winner Sofia Kenin thinks her Russian heritage will stand her in good stead for more titles
Coming up …
Big Bash cricket finals, football pre-season … then, the US Open