The sounds of midsummer in Australia are unmistakable.
The slopping of sunscreen on the skin, and the slap of a hand on a mozzie or two. The thump-whack of the tennis ball on hardcourts on the telly as lawnmowers purr in the background. Ocean sounds, and roaring air conditioners trying to take the edge off the heat.
And the sound of Novak Djokovic giving his winner’s speech at the Australian Open.
The 2023 Australian Open has had its fair share of twists and turns. The world number one, Carlos Alacraz, withdrew just before the tournament. Then arguably the biggest draw of the tournament, Nick Kyrgios, joined him just before the first ball was struck in anger.
There was a fear about flat balls and late finishes. Upsets galore reigned on both sides of the draw, creating chaos in the race to the title.
And yet, Djokovic is in the final again.
Looking to spoil his run to his 10th title in 10 finals is local favourite Stefanos Tsitsipas. Long considered one of the best hopes of the next generation, Tsitsipas is on the cusp of claiming his first Grand Slam title and first stint as world number one to boot.
But to be the best, you have to beat the best. Does Tsitsipas have it in him, or will Djokovic reign again?
It is finally Tsitsipas’s time?
If you talk to a Greek-Australian for long enough, they’ll start to let you know of all the things that Greece brought to the world.
From alarm clocks to zoology, vending machines to bathtubs and almost everything in-between, Greece has fundamentally shaped the modern world.
That extends to the sporting world. The Olympics started in Ancient Greece, and the origins of many athletic pursuits date back to these times. One sport that doesn’t come from Greece is tennis.
In fact, despite the spread of tennis around the world, Greece was left mostly untouched. Tsitsipas is the first man representing Greece inside the top 100 players in the world.
While there have been many men’s tennis stars of Greek descent, including Mark Phillippousis, Marcos Baghdatis, Nick Kyrgios and Thansi Kokkinakis, there has been a notable absence of those from Greece itself.
For their first homegrown male star, Greek fans could hardly have hoped for a better representative. Standing at 193cm Tsitsipas the near perfect ideal of a modern tennis player.
The Greek star is long and languid on the court, making even the hardest of shots look effortless. He combines the raw power of someone his size with surprising agility for someone that tall.
Balls that look like they are sailing long often drop in at the last minute due the ferocious amount of spin he imparts on the ball. At times through this Australian Open he has ripped the ball even harder than Nadal in his prime, using those long levers to full effect.
The first week of the tournament saw talk about the Dunlop balls, and how they muted players who relied on a spin heavy game style. Nadal, Casper Ruud and Felix Auger Aliassime fell by the wayside, all for the topspin-heavy Tsitsipas to make the final.
That sheer amount of spin kicks the ball up and out of reach of opponents. Given the height that he strikes the ball from, the heavy topspin can force any returning player almost out of court. When he needs to, Tsitsipas can flatten out his stroke and deliver raw power and speed to put balls away.
Tsitsipas has a strong preference for his forehand side, using it as his primary — and sometimes only — weapon. Tsitsipas hit 24 groundstroke winners against Kanchanov in the semifinal, with 22 of them coming on the forehand wing. The fastest of these nudged above 200kph, blink and you’ll miss it type speed.
He will often try to run around to open up that forehand rather than rely on his elegant one-handed backhand. The one handed backhand is relatively rare in the modern game — with just eleven players of the top 100 sporting the shot.
Tsitsipas modelled his version after his tennis playing parents and his idol Roger Federer. If he can get the stroke going, it will cause deja vu for Djokovic.
Given how good Djokovic has been in the last six months, he’ll need everything to fire.
The world around Novak Djokovic
After nine Australian Open titles, 21 total Grand Slam titles, and nearly two decades on the tour, what more can be said about Novak Djokovic? How many times can you break down the brilliance of one of the finest players to pick up a racquet?
Djokovic comes into the 2023 Australian Open final having not lost a match since October last year. He has dropped just three matches since losing to Nadal (who else) at the French Open last May.
In a sport where hot streaks are lucky if they last a week, Djokovic is on an incendiary run lasting months.
Or perhaps it isn’t a hot streak, and just an indication of just how good he is. In the era of the “Big Three”, Djokovic continues to build the case that he is the finest of the bunch — even if he isn’t the most universally loved.
If Federer is the most elegant, and Nadal is the hardest hitter, then Djokovic is the hardest worker. His serve doesn’t have supersonic speed, nor do his groundstrokes. He can’t generate the raw torque on the ball that Nadal can, and his body thanks him for it.
Instead, it’s the Serb’s unerring placement of balls and ability to track down almost any opposition shot that continues to stun onlookers. He is one of the game’s greatest ever returners, alongside his longtime rival Nadal. He is seemingly always dangerous, no matter how long a point goes.
In his run to the final, Djokovic’s ball placement has been particularly exceptional, laying a thick layer of fuzz to the white lines increasingly as the tournament has progressed.
Djokovic has landed about three quarters of his serves within 60cm of the line. That gives him a huge advantage in the positional battle that is modern tennis. His unforced error count has risen as a result, but the effect of being able to dictate the terms of play has been worth the occasional lost point.
Despite this, Djokovic has barely allowed any break points so far this AO. That’s while creating a plethora of break opportunities of his own.
Djokovic looked the shakiest early in the tournament as he battled a hamstring injury, losing a set to qualifier Enzo Couacaud in the second round and being pushed by Gregor Dmitriov in the third. In the second week of the slam it has seemed like the Serb has been barely challenged.
Often the noise around Djokovic drowns the excellence on court.
Chatter about his “true” injury status and his father’s photos with Putin sympathisers has dominated headlines as much, or even more, than his play on court. Winning is expected, but each off-court twist and turn is new and exciting.
Within those white lines, though, Djokovic has looked as good as ever before.
Tale of the tape
Djokovic and Tsitsipas have no shortage of history together, playing each other 12 times over the years. Djokovic has won 10 of these encounters, including the last nine straight, and has prevailed in both of their encounters in grand slams, taking a pair of wins in Paris.
But that record belies how close some of those encounters have been.
Both will have clear strategies to take the game away. Djokovic will be trying to force the ball to Tsitsipas’s backhand, especially on serve and early in points. As usual, Djokovic will look to dictate court position with fine placement of balls.
Tsitsipas will look to stretch Djokovic wide on serve, and pick up cheap service games to build momentum. If Tsitsipas can get his big forehand going early, it could push Djokovic away from his favoured spots.
Both will also look to harness a crowd that has been favourable throughout, almost local at times.
There is no Serbian-based grand slam, nor is there a Greek one, but a Melbourne-based one might be as close as you can get. Post-war migration from both Greece and the former Yugoslavia was considerable, with countless men, women and children funnelling through the Bonegilla Migrant Reception centre before dispersing through the country.
Melbourne is said to be the biggest Greek city outside of Greece, while Australia is home to one of the biggest international Serbian communities. In a global game, both will feel somewhat at home at Melbourne Park.
Whoever wins will leave Melbourne with not only the Australian Open title, but the world number one ranking as well.
Tennis matches don’t get much bigger than this.