The first time Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev crossed paths on the Monte Carlo Country Club’s pristine clay courts, the Russian believed the Serbian had a God-like presence.
Following their eighth encounter on the professional circuit on Rod Laver Arena’s blue Plexicushion, that thought is unlikely to change.
For all of the quirks making this Australian Open unforgettable – masks, canned applause and mid-tournament lockdowns – Novak Djokovic’s invincibility on the final Sunday remained intact.
The world No.1 stomached a first-set challenge before relentless defence and physicality broke the Russian shapeshifter.
Djokovic demolished Medvedev 7-5 6-2 6-2 in under two hours, turning the beginnings of a blockbuster final into a beatdown.
“For sure, if we can say like this, I guess he’s the King of Melbourne, even if I don’t like these words,” a defeated Medvedev said.
The Serbian has now hoisted an unmatched ninth Australian Open titles from nine finals.
It’s his 18th major trophy overall, drawing him two shy of all-time major winners Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Djokovic also completed his second Australian Open three-peat.
Djokovic accomplished all this while fighting a tear in his abdominal oblique muscle and being “persona non grata in this country” (his words) after a checklist of quarantine “suggestions” for fellow players was leaked.
“I would like to thank Rod Laver Arena. I love you each year more and more. It’s been love affair keeps growing,” Djokovic said, clutching a familiar friend in the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup.
“Each one is different. It’s hard to compare,” he told reporters later.
“But it has been definitely emotionally the most challenging grand slams that I ever had with everything that was happening, injury, off-the-court stuff, quarantines.
“It has been, least to say, a rollercoaster ride in the last four weeks.”
Medvedev – more mathematician than baseline slugger, more chessman than marathoner – came into the match delivering feverish levels of hype.
The Russian was on a red-hot, 20-match winning streak (11 of those against the rest of the top 10, including Djokovic), rattling off the Paris Masters, ATP Finals and ATP Cup in succession.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, Medvedev’s semi-final victim, described the Russian’s court craft as if he had “unlocked pretty much everything in the game”.
In a time where booming serve plus booming groundstrokes equals men’s tennis success, Medvedev toys and disguises before striking a killer blow.
And he was heralded as the next man on the list of challengers to finally take a small fraction of the spotlight on the ‘Big Three’ for himself.
But Djokovic had all the answers for a man who supposedly has all the answers.
He broke the Russian’s serve immediately and raced to a three-game lead in eight minutes. Advantage, Serbia.
The man they call the Djoker danced the final do-si-do eight times over in Melbourne already and Medvedev was not keeping with the rhythm. The Russian, for his part, was not playing poorly. Djokovic was just in another stratosphere.
Medvedev showed flickers of his electrifying style – hitting more than 80 per cent of his first serves in early, a must against the best returner that’s lived – which sparked in the fourth game.
He won a 28-shot slugfest, a taxing test of wits dragging both players to the ends of the Earth, as if they were connected by an invisible cord that would coil and spring with every blow.
Then, his remarkable off-the-cuff thinking sparkled under the Sunday night lights.
Medvedev, so far back in the court that he became a de facto spectator, shot two moon balls into the unseasonably chilly Melbourne night, the second catching Djokovic off balance, who hit a mishit smash.
As quick as he ceded the disadvantage, he gained it back.
And Djokovic, hunched over out of puff as the rallies grew into mini-matches on the broader canvas, deferred to drop shots that Medvedev traced with aplomb.
Over the first set, the average rally lasted nearly six shots.
Medvedev said pre-match that Djokovic was the man with the pressure squarely on his shoulders. And at 5-5 in the first set, that’s how the match was starting to transpire.
And then, the flame was quickly snuffed out.
Djokovic held emphatically to love. Then he raced ahead 0-30 in Medvedev’s sixth service game. A lucky net cord and a neatly threaded backhand pass meant three set points were on his plate.
Medvedev saved one with a big-time forehand. The next with a 214km/h rocket. But a third, a forehand sitter, went begging as the ball sank into the net.
After 42 minutes of end-to-end rallying, having the set extracted from Medvedev at the cruellest moment seemed to sink the Russian’s spirits.
Despite Medvedev racing out of the blocks with a break in the second, Djokovic fired off two consecutive breaks as the Russian stopped matching Djokovic shot for shot and made uncharacteristic errors that landed metres out (he made 30 for the match compared to Djokovic’s 17).
After the second set, Medvedev unleashed his frustrations on his racquet, breaking it in half.
He then cursed his player’s box in French, Russian and English – the only pattern he returned to as he only won three more games to Djokovic’s 12.
The Serbian, by contrast, closed his eyes and meditated at the change of ends. An unmistakable picture of serenity, sensing the moment was his.
Djokovic secured the second set with a ripping forehand return off a 178km/h serve that Medvedev watched hit his shoelaces and bunt in vain.
And after a clinical third set, Djokovic needed one championship point.
Avenging his earlier smashing woes, the Serbian attacked the net, backed it up with a stick volley and swung a no-look haymaker over his head for the match winner.
Splayed on his back, Djokovic rewrote Melbourne Park’s history, again.
Looking back, no points stick out revealing Djokovic’s exceptionalism. Rather, this rout needs to be assessed as the sum of all its parts and how the Serbian approached key junctures that turned the match his way.
Djokovic went seven for 11 on break point opportunities and saved 50 per cent of those chances on his serve. He won 73 per cent of the points on his first serve and, startlingly, 58 per cent on his second.
And the Serbian only lost two of 18 points approaching the net.
He was clutch, in every sense of the word.
Medvedev, however, should not look back on this as an opportunity gone begging. Although he said it would hurt less than his five-set epic loss to Rafael Nadal in the 2019 US Open final, how it accelerated away from him will likely sting.
Off the back of his remarkable streak, he’s still nearing the top two, a barrier no one named Nadal, Murray, Federer or Djokovic has broken since 2005.
“Next time if I play Novak ever here in the final, I for sure going to do some things on the court, maybe off the court differently because at least I would have this experience where he won me easy,” Medvedev said.
“Doesn’t mean that I will succeed, but that’s life of a tennis player.”
That’s life, as it so morbidly is, for anyone competing alongside the trio of of a particular Spaniard, Swiss and Serbian.
And of that criticism the Serb copped before the tournament started?
“Look, at the end of the day everyone who has the stage has the right to say what they want to say,” Djokovic said.
“It’s a matter on my side whether I’m going to react or not, in which way I’m going to react. I didn’t allow it to hinder my performance. I think winning the trophy is in a way my answer [to them].”