The hug is long and warm. Exchange of words and smiles. Novak Djokovic, 17, has just played the very first of his 323 Grand Slam matches. With his young face and his slightly lanky look, the young Serb did not weigh heavy. Marat Safin, finalist the previous year and future winner of this 2005 edition of the Australian Open, was far too strong for him.
“He told me he was sorry, smiles the Russian. I don’t know why he said that. I told him he had a good game, he had to keep working and I wished him the best for the future“You will never know what the blue cock was sorry for or why he blew these words to his imposing opponent. Maybe he was just a little lost, as he had been on the court.
Djokovic took 6-0, 6-2, 6-1 in one hour and fourteen minutes. The first defeat of his career in a Major also remains, to this day, the most severe and the most expeditious. But despite the spanking he received, he was smiling. The words of the charismatic Moscovite, in the net then a little later in front of the press, came back to him. And they are complimentary: “He played without fear, he really tried things. He is not yet 18 years old, he is a very young player. And he will be a very, very good player, with a very long career.”
To say that Marat Safin was right. Fifteen years later, Novak Djokovic advances to Melbourne with a record heavy as a dead horse. With 16 capital crowns, it has Roger Federer (20) and Rafael Nadal (19) in its viewfinder. And if he triumphed everywhere, it is in the Antipodes that he built a large part of his history. It is here that Djokovic is deflowered in Grand Slam. He played memorable fights there, suffered a handful of disillusions but above all accumulated a load of victories, until becoming, last year, the only record holder for titles at the Australian Open.
Today 2005 seems to belong to another era. Twitter did not exist. Facebook was still called The Facebook and its notoriety had not gone beyond the borders of Harvard. Jacques Chirac was in the middle of his five-year term. Felix Auger-Aliassime was three years old. Even if Roger Federer was already at the top and if Rafael Nadal was preparing to enter the dance, tennis did not know that it would advance in a few years into the Djokovic era, which was indeed the 2010s. The 2005 Nole in its little shoes appears far away. And Melbourne, always, will have served as a red thread to its triumphal march.
Marat Safin and Novak Djokovic in 2005 at the Australian Open.Getty Images
2008: Welcome to the club
January 2008. Little Novak has grown up well. He is now anchored in the role of the third man, behind the two giants Federer and Nadal, winners between them of the last eleven Grand Slam tournaments. No one, since Marat Safin in 2005 in Australia, has managed to interfere with them. This is Djokovic’s ambition.
78th in the world in late 2005, 16th a year later, he was inducted in 2007 as the joker behind the pair of aces on the circuit. Winner of his first two Masters 1000, finalist for the first time in Grand Slam at the US Open, he took a new dimension at 20 years old. Here he is, world number 3, far behind the leading duo, but just as isolated in front of the rest of the troop, in an in-between more promising than frustrating.
The big question now is whether it is already capable of shaking the Spanish-Swiss coconut palm for good. After all, his end of the season was disappointing and if he signed his first victories in recent months against Federer and Nadal, he also touched certain limits against them, especially in Grand Slam. Nadal stopped him dead in three sets in the semi-final of Roland-Garros. The world number one, too, did not give up a single round in the round of 16 in Melbourne in January 2007 or in the final of the US Open.
2007 US Open Final: The 1st in Major by Novak Djokovic, beaten by Roger Federer.Getty Images
But the boy is full of confidence. Before crossing paths with Federer on the Rod Laver Arena in 2007, Nole had made a winning speech from the age of 19: “I lost twice to him, I know how perfect he is. Everything seems so easy with him. I know all that, but that doesn’t mean that I want to stop in the round of 16. I’m not going to go on the court to play well. I’m going to go there to win this game. It’s my aim.”
Did the irreverence of the cheeky youngster bite Federer alive? Winner 6-2, 7-5, 6-3 in less than two hours, the boss had in any case put an end to it. When, after his defeat, a colleague asked him if he regretted his remarks the day before, the Belgradois’ answer said a lot about the character:
“ Maybe people say ‘but what did this guy believe? Could he beat Roger? ‘ But for me, it’s the only way to understand things. Winning has to be the goal in every game, especially against Federer. You have to believe it, be positive, have confidence in your means. It is not always enough, but if you just come to make a good match against him, you have no chance. Yes, today I lost, so what?“
He will more or less hold the same speech after his lost final against the same Federer in Flushing eight months later. A final, where, despite his new defeat in three innings (7-6, 7-6, 6-4), he was convinced that he had not gone far from a big blow. There had been plenty of opportunities without him being able to seize them. As always, he vowed to learn the lesson. In Melbourne, the reunion between the two men is scheduled for the semi-finals. Not surprisingly, they will take place. The astonishment is nested elsewhere.
Novak Djokovic in 2008 in Melbourne.Getty Images
Because the more impressive of the two is not what you think. Novak Djokovic takes place. To reach the last square, he did not give up the slightest race en route, dispatching Benjamin Becker, Simone Bolelli and Sam Querrey in the first week, a Lleyton Hewitt washed out by his famous match against Marcos Baghdatis completed at 4:33 a.m. then, in the quarter-finals, the world number 5 David Ferrer (6-0, 6-3, 7-5). Yet, until then, he has advanced in relative indifference. Apart from his eighth against Hewitt, which stirred local interest, the Serb snakes in the picture without drawing attention. Rather a good sign, basically.
The discussion topics point more to the troublemaker Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, whose journey stuns spectators and observers. The day before the Federer – Djokovic semi-final, Le Manceau signed a resounding feat by pulverizing Rafael Nadal in the first half (6-2, 6-3, 6-2), after having already driven two Top 10 out of the table (Andy Murray and Richard Gasquet). Incredible sensation when the game had to revolve around Federer – Nadal with Djokovic as a possible referee. “I felt like I was facing an avalanche without being able to do anything to stop it“, says Nadal.
The other big deal of the fortnight concerns the double title holder. We find it physically borrowed. The rumor evokes a virus. Later, he will reveal that he suffered from mononucleosis. Roger Federer almost missed out in the round of 16 against Janko Tipsarevic. Miraculous 10-8 winner in the 5th set, he displayed a weakness that day that was not lost on anyone. Especially not Novak Djokovic. “People are starting to feel that he is not unbeatable, slips the Serb after the near exploit of his buddy Tipsa. No one is unbeatable of course, but Roger has been so overbearing for years, especially on fast surfaces, that you could have that feeling. It is changing. And it’s a good thing for us“For him, in particular.
This January 25, 2008, the future Djoker will hit the table for the first time that he is about to overturn. After two hours and twenty-eight minutes of the match, Djokovic falls on his knees on the Plexicushion of the Rod Laver Arena. It is “only” final. Not a first for him. But the impact of his victory justifies his reaction. He did not win a semi-final. He beat Roger Federer. In three sets.
The shock is colossal. The Swiss had not missed a major final in three years. Unheard of in the history of tennis. In reality, since the Australian Open 2005, only one player had dominated him in Grand Slam, and only in Paris: Rafael Nadal. He had set a delusional standard which he eventually became a prisoner. “I created a monster, he will say at a press conference in one of the most famous phrases of his career. I have to win all the tournaments. Semi-final, it remains a very good result. I didn’t play my best tennis, but it was still solid. But as soon as I lose a set, people say I played badly. It’s my fault, I guess, because I created this monster. ”
Beyond the defeat, it is its magnitude that challenges. Federer had not been beaten in three sets in the Grand Slam since his elimination against Gustavo Kuerten at Roland Garros in 2004. Everyone had a feeling that the Serbian threat was becoming clearer, but that Federer could bow so sharply, no one envisaged it .
Curiously, this semi-final was perfectly asymmetrical with their US Open final four months earlier. This time, it is the world number one that will have shone by its inability to capitalize on its opportunities. Federer led 5-3 in the 1st set. He had two 3rd inning balls at 6-5 on his opponent’s serve before leading 3-1 in the deciding game. But Djokovic systematically slammed the door in his face. By his tactical mastery (he pounded Federer’s forehand), his extraordinary defense and even more his unshakable confidence, he ended up disgusting his illustrious rival.
Novak Djokovic, Australian Open 2008.Getty Images
The seeded number 3 is in the final without losing a set and having maneuvered Federer like nobody on fast surface for ages. But the hardest part begins for him. He is going to play a match that he has no right to lose. Faced with a novice, ranked 47th at ATP. “It’s a little strange, it’s true, admits Djokovic. To be 20 years old and to be a favorite of a Grand Slam final…“Confronting Jo-Wilfried Tsonga rather than Rafael Nadal increases his chances of opening his record, but the approach is much more delicate.
This improbable final, the only one over a period of six years (between the Australian Open 2005 and the Australian Open 2011) not to involve at least Federer or Nadal, generates a breeze of freshness over Melbourne. This 2008 edition will be a landmark, either by devoting one of the most formidable sensations in history via the Le Mans apotheosis, or by enthroning the Prince of Belgrade, whom everyone understands that he is led, if not to reign alone, to minima to ultimately impose power sharing.
Two young champions with very different trajectories have an appointment with their destiny. Novak Djokovic, 20 years old, self-programmed to conquer the world. He often repeated it over the years, he never imagined himself otherwise than as world number one, from an early age. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 22, returned from nowhere after an early career rotten by various injuries. His Australian career is as much a miracle as a “feel good movie”. But there will be no happy end for the one that all Melbourne called “Ali” for his resemblance to the former boxer and his showman side.
Not that the Frenchman misses his final. He will even win the first set, concluded on two anthology points: a passing consecutive to a smash from Djokovic then a millimeter forehand lob, all causing public hysteria. But little by little, the extraordinary carelessness that had accompanied him during the fortnight will unravel. As if Jo was taking the measure during this final of what it implied.
Djokovic has already been there. Of course, the weight of the event invaded him. “Before the final, he will tell, I tried to think of something else, make jokes, listen to music and watch funny videos to relax. I did it, but when I entered the court it changed in two seconds. I was very nervous. ”
However, it will eventually tame this element. The privilege of its final at the US Open. “In the hottest moments of the match, I knew how to be calmer and more patient than in New York“, explains the Serbian. This time, he seizes his chance when it presents itself and behaves little by little as a boss. Nothing will be simple and Tsonga passes very close to embarking him in a very random 5th set. But in a little more than three hours, he won 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 and invited himself to the club of winners in the Grand Slam.
“I dreamed of it, I watched the tennis legends lift the trophies and I wanted to find myself in this situation too“, he launched after the final. The ambitious Nole achieved his goals. Already. His inevitable advent was faster than expected. This is not a judgment of no confidence in but Federer and Nadal took up so much honor that his time seemed to come later. The young man was not only talented. He was, too, in a hurry. But before enjoying the drunkenness of a coronation capital, he will now have to learn patience.
Noavk Djokovic with the Norman Brookes Trophy. For the first time. Not the last.Getty Images
2011: The birth of a tyrant
In a career sometimes there are grace periods, where all the pieces of a puzzle that you have long vainly sought to nest finally fit together perfectly. They are the same pieces, you had them under your nose, but suddenly, the complex entanglement appears to you as obvious. This is what Novak Djokovic experienced during his historic 2011 campaign, the one that saw him sign a Petit Slam, chain more than forty victories for six months and settle in power durably and without any ambiguity.
MORE ON TUESDAY …