Djokovic eyes fifth post-30 Slam title in Australia

Updated January 20, 2020

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MELBOURNE: Novak Djokovic of Serbia hits a return during a practice session for the Australian Open on Sunday.—AFP
MELBOURNE: Novak Djokovic of Serbia hits a return during a practice session for the Australian Open on Sunday.—AFP

MELBOURNE: The secret to Novak Djokovic’s post-30 success? Not his best-in-tennis return. Or his limb-twisting, body-bending court coverage. Or even his baseline consistency or clutch gene.

No, ask Djokovic to explain how he keeps playing so well at this age, and the Australian Open’s defending champion points to a quality he says he shares with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

“Roger has talked about this as well, Rafa as well, that age is just a number. It’s not just a cliche, but it’s really something that I feel like the three of us have in common. It’s really the way we approach career and our everyday life,” Djokovic said during a news conference before the year’s first Grand Slam tournament begins on Monday.

“I think we found a way, a formula, to balance private [and] professional life, so we are able to kind of excel in tennis and still be able to compete at the highest level after many years, still be motivated, still be mentally fresh and, of course, physically prepared and fit to compete in best-of-five-sets with young players that are coming up.”

Djokovic, 32, already owns four major titles since he turned 30, the same number as Federer. Only one man has won more often at that stage of his career in the professional era: Nadal, 33, has five such championships.

They also, of course, occupy the top three spots in history for men’s singles trophies at majors. Federer leads with 20, one ahead of Nadal.

Djokovic has quickly risen to 16, including a record seven at Melbourne Park, by grabbing four of the past six overall.

“For me, it seems like my career was going in sequences of several years. I think every sequence had different circumstances in life, in different situations, that have made me the person and the player I am today. I just had to adapt to these newly occurring circumstances and evolve, kind of grow stronger, and also find purpose and motivation in each of these phases,” Djokovic said, speaking in paragraphs, as he often does.

“I mean, I’m a completely different person, have a completely different life today than I had five years ago. I’m a father of two children. Obviously things are not the way they were 5 or 10 years ago. I know that,” he said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better or it’s worse. It’s just different.”

Another factor that at first seemed like a burden but Djokovic now calls an inspiration and motivator is the push he’s gotten to improve by needing to compete in an era with Federer and Nadal.

Djokovic is seeded second in Australia — one spot behind Nadal, one spot ahead of Federer — and is scheduled for the last match in Rod Laver Arena on Day 1, playing 37th-ranked Jan-Lennard Struff at night.

Federer, Serena Williams and 2019 champion Naomi Osaka play in that stadium during the day, while top-ranked Ash Barty precedes Djokovic at night.

Barty, fresh from winning the Adelaide International on Saturday, carries Australian hopes of seeing the first home-grown women’s winner since 1978.

“Obviously it’s the perfect preparation. But regardless of whether I won the title or not last week, I feel like I’m well-prepared,” Barty said. “I’m happy, I’m healthy. I’m coming into the first Grand Slam of the year with a smile on my face. That’s all I can ask of myself.”

The most anticipated contest of the opening day is slated for Margaret Court Arena: seven-time major champion Venus Williams, 39, against Coco Gauff, 15, in a rematch of their first-round matchup at Wimbledon last year won by the teenager.

The tennis world is waiting for a young man to take a step forward and win a major championship; there hasn’t been a first-time major winner under 30 since 2014.

“Well, they’re coming closer and closer. It’s obvious,” Djokovic said, mentioning 23-year-old Daniil Medvedev [runner-up to Nadal at the US Open last year), 26-year-old Dominic Thiem (twice the runner-up to Nadal at the French Open) and 21-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas (a semi-finalist at the Australian Open a year ago).

While Djokovic and Nadal split last year’s Grand Slams, Thiem, Medvedev and Fabio Fognini won their first Masters trophies and Tsitsipas, 21, became the youngest ATP Finals champion in 18 years.

“They’re very, very close. They’re literally one set away,” Djokovic added. On a given day, in the very near future, I think that can happen. It’s going to happen. It’s inevitable. What they’re missing? I don’t think they are missing too much, to be honest.”

The tournament is taking place against the backdrop of a bushfires emergency that has swept the nation and ramped up fears over global warming — and billowed choking smog across Melbourne and other cities.

After player anger during qualifying and practice, when several were hit by coughing fits and breathing problems, air pollution returned to ‘moderate’ levels over the weekend, with rain forecast for the start of the tournament.

Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2020