MELBOURNE, Australia — After Novak Djokovic‘s dominant fourth-round Australian Open win over Alex de Minaur, the 21-time Grand Slam champion was asked about the other seven men remaining in the draw. He zeroed in on Stefanos Tsitsipas.
“Tsitsipas [is] probably the most experienced guy out of all the quarterfinalists. He has played the final stages of a Grand Slam quite a few times. I think he has never played a final,” questioned Djokovic.
A reporter was quick to correct him: “You beat him in Roland Garros . It was a good match. You came back.”
“That’s right. That’s right. Sorry, my bad,” replied a smirking Djokovic.
Was it early gamesmanship or simply forgetfulness from the Serbian? Either way, it’s a fascinating subtext to Sunday’s Australian Open men’s final when Djokovic and Tsitsipas step out onto Rod Laver Arena and battle for the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup.
For all of the upsets and uncertainty at 2023’s season-opening Slam, the showpiece match will feature the most successful tennis player in Melbourne Park history and the current world No. 4. It’s hardly a shock decider.
Djokovic, the early favorite, leads the head-to-head 10-2, but Tsitsipas is in career-best form and shouldn’t be taken lightly by the nine-time Australian Open champion.
“I’m playing great tennis. I’m enjoying myself. I just see no downside or negativity in what I’m trying to do out there,” Tsitsipas said after his semifinal win over Karen Khachanov. “This is something that has been sort of lacking in my game. I genuinely believe in what I’m able to produce.”
History will be made, regardless of who prevails. Djokovic is hunting a record-equaling 22nd major title, while Tsitsipas will look to become the first person from Greece to win a Grand Slam. Plus, if the stakes weren’t already high enough, the winner will be the new ATP world No. 1.
Get set for what should be an epic men’s final.
Why Stefanos Tsitsipas will win
Before Tsitsipas faced Djokovic in that 2021 Roland Garros final, he played perhaps the most grueling and intense match of his career: a five-set semifinal against Alexander Zverev, which lasted three hours and 32 minutes.
“It was just exhausting. It was nerve-wracking. So intense,” said Tsitsipas after he was able to eek out the win.
The final against Djokovic two days later also went to a deciding set and Tsitsipas appeared to run out of gas late in the match. That shouldn’t be an issue for him this time around. The 24-year-old has dropped just three sets en route to the final and is fitter than he was 18 months ago when he made his French Open run.
Much of Tsitsipas’ success this fortnight at Melbourne Park has come as a byproduct of his aggressiveness. Tsitsipas knows he can’t just position himself behind the baseline and rally with Djokovic, who wins a higher rate of points with over nine shots played than anyone else in the game.
Instead, shorter points will also be part of the Tsitsipas game plan. Over his past two matches, Tsitsipas has won 44 more points than his opponent when points are held to four shots or fewer. Keeping the points short won’t just see him win more of them, but will also frustrate Djokovic as he won’t be able to settle into rallies.
An aggressive Tsitsipas is good enough to dictate proceedings for stages of this final. Such strategy was key to success in his semifinal win over Khachanov, where he struck 66 winners and just 34 unforced errors through four sets. In contrast, his fourth-round win over Italian Jannik Sinner featured a more conservative game plan, and Tsitsipas was taken to five sets.
And then there’s the matter of Djokovic’s mystery injury. While he has looked totally unstoppable at various stages of the tournament, he has been battling a right hamstring injury, which he admitted could flare up at any point.
“Tennis is a very quick, very dynamic sport. Things can change in a matter of moments. I didn’t feel anything today [but] I don’t want to celebrate too early. I know things can change really quickly,” Djokovic said after his fourth-round win over de Minaur.
It’s not to say Tsitsipas needs to rely on Djokovic’s hamstring causing him problems if he’s any chance to win, but it’s certainly an area of concern in the Djokovic camp. Should the match extend into a third or fourth hour, the strain could prove decisive. It’s certainly something worth keeping tabs on.
And finally, if his first six matches in Melbourne are any indicator, Tsitsipas will have the vast majority of support in the final. A large Greek contingent have been turning out each time Tsitsipas takes to Rod Laver Arena, and the same can be expected again on Sunday.
Why Novak Djokovic will win
Is there any way to stop a highly motivated and determined Djokovic?
The Serbian isn’t just looking to draw level with Rafael Nadal for the most major titles in men’s tennis. He’s also eyeing some redemption after being deported from Australia just 12 months earlier.
History is on his side, too. Djokovic has an eye-watering 85-5 record at the Australian Open since 2008 and is a staggering 19-0 in semifinals and finals matches at Melbourne Park. In fact, the last time Djokovic lost at Rod Laver Arena, Tsitsipas was barely ranked in the world’s top 100.
Djokovic also has the clear edge in his rivalry with Tsitsipas, having won the last nine matches, including their two Grand Slam clashes (both of which came at the French Open). He has every reason to be confident ahead of his 33rd major final.
“The experience of being in this particular situation and circumstances before helps. Also the fact that I never lost the Australian Open final definitely serves as a great confidence booster prior to Sunday,” Djokovic said after crushing American Tommy Paul in the semifinals. “But, of course, still, the job needs to be done on the court.”
Djokovic has been ruthless in his run to the final. He lost just five games to de Minaur in the fourth round before holding Andrey Rublev to seven in a quarterfinal.
Paul looked set to provide a real test in the semifinals, but after winning the first set 7-5, Djokovic coughed up just three more games for the match. He’s lost just one set of tennis this entire tournament.
While his serve has been reliable, Djokovic is once again doing the damage on his return games. Few would argue Djokovic isn’t the greatest returner the sport has ever seen, with his seamless ability to transition from defense into attack. At this year’s Australian Open, he is winning 40% of points when his opponent hits a first serve (ranked third), and 60% when they hit a second serve (ranked fifth). He’s the only player to rank in the top five in both categories.
Another area where Djokovic has an advantage over Tsitsipas, and just about anyone else on the planet, is in the error department. The semifinal match against Paul was somewhat of an anomaly with Djokovic making an uncharacteristic 39 unforced errors, though most came early in the match. Djokovic will make Tsitsipas play ball after ball, forcing him into mistakes. He’s unlikely to release the pressure with errors of his own.
But perhaps Djokovic’s greatest strength is his ability to produce in clutch moments. Some of his best tennis of the tournament has come in clutch situations, such as the first set tie-breaker against Grigor Dimitrov back in the third round, and again at 5-5 in the first set of his semifinal against Paul. He just finds ways to win points he needs.
Tsitsipas has also been prone to some mistakes this tournament. In his semifinal win over Khachanov, he had three foot faults and was given two time violations before the second set had been completed. Against Djokovic, those mistakes will almost certainly be punished.
What will happen?
What’s Djokovic’s win streak up to at Melbourne Park? 27 matches? Yeah, it’s going to be very tough to pick against him, regardless of who he’s playing and how in-form that opponent might be. Assuming his right hamstring doesn’t cause him problems, Djokovic will win this match in four entertaining sets. And let’s face it, even if his leg does give him grief, a four-set win is still the likely result.