A tearful Novak Djokovic described his record-equalling 22nd grand slam title as the biggest victory of his life after overcoming injury and difficult emotions to triumph once again at the Australian Open.
A year after seeing Rafael Nadal pull ahead in the all-time men’s standings while he tried to process the fall-out from his deportation from Australia, Djokovic has been determined to show that Rod Laver Arena is his stage.
He dropped just one set all tournament – despite saying he feared a left hamstring problem might force him to withdraw – and finished with a 6-3 7-6 (4) 7-6 (5) victory over first-time Australian Open finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas to claim a 10th title in Melbourne.
Djokovic also reclaimed the world number one ranking from Carlos Alcaraz and it would be very difficult to argue that he does not justify that position having once again put the younger generations in their place.
His status in Australia, meanwhile, is unmatched, with the 35-year-old winning a 28th consecutive Australian Open match and a 41st in a row in the country as a whole.
After sealing victory, Djokovic climbed into the stands to celebrate with his team and family and was overcome with emotion, lying on the ground and sobbing uncontrollably.
Speaking on court in a jacket bearing the number 22, Djokovic said: “This has been one of the most challenging tournaments I’ve ever played in my life.
“Not playing last year, coming back this year. I want to thank all the people that made me feel welcome, made me feel comfortable to be in Melbourne, to be in Australia.
“There’s a reason I’ve played my best tennis on this court. Only my team and my family know what we’ve been through in the last four, five weeks. This probably is the biggest victory in my life considering the circumstances.”
Expanding later in the press conference room, Djokovic said: “It’s just a huge pride and satisfaction that I feel at the moment. Of course, when I went into my box, I just think emotionally I collapsed there and teared up with especially my mother and my brother, when I gave them a hug.
“Because up to that moment I was not allowing myself to be distracted with things off the court or whatever was happening in dealing with an injury. It required an enormous mental energy really to stay present, to stay focused, to take things day by day, and really see how far I can go.
“If I turn back the time two and a half weeks ago, I wasn’t really liking my chance in this tournament with the way I felt with my leg.
“It was a huge relief and release of the emotions in the end. Just difficult to find any additional words really. It’s been a long journey, but a very special one.”
The Serbian’s coach, former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, opened up about the severity of Djokovic’s hamstring problem – for the first time all tournament, he ditched the heavy strapping that had covered his left thigh in the final.
“I don’t say 100 per cent, but 97 per cent of the players, on Saturday when you get results of the MRI, you go straight to the referee’s office and pull out of the tournament,” said Ivanisevic.
“But not him. He is from outer space. His brain is working different. He gave everything, 77 therapies a day. Every day was kind of better and better. I didn’t expect this. Honestly, I was shocked.
“He’s getting crazier and crazier. It’s no end of the field of craziness. In a positive way. The guy is unbelievable. I thought I saw everything, and then you see this. Probably I’m going to see something else.”
The match will not go down as one of Djokovic’s more memorable grand slam finals. After a brilliant start against first-time Australian Open finalist Tsitsipas, his level dipped in the second set but the Greek was unable to take advantage.
Tsitsipas gave himself hope with a break of serve to start the third but he handed it straight back and a 0-5 deficit in the tie-break proved insurmountable.
The contest played out in something akin to a football atmosphere, with Melbourne’s large Serbian and Greek communities turning out in force and umpire Louise Azemar Engzell constantly having to appeal for quiet during points.
The one empty seat in the stands should have belonged to Djokovic’s father Srdjan, but he again opted to stay away from public view after being filmed with pro-Russia activists last week – inadvertently, the family insisted.
He did celebrate with his son later outside the locker room, and Djokovic said: “We talked. I thought the things will calm down in terms of media and everything, but it didn’t. We both agreed it would probably be better that he is not there.
“That hurts me and him a lot because these are very special, unique moments. Who knows if they will repeat again. So it was not easy for him.”
It was a second grand slam final defeat for Tsitsipas, who also lost to Djokovic from two sets up at the French Open in 2021.
The Greek, who would have become world number one himself had he won, is confident he is on the right path, though, saying: “Today was my opportunity to be a world number one. I had a better opponent on the other side of the net who did things much better than me. He deserves that spot currently.
“It’s my time to aim for something like this. I don’t see any reason to be lowering my expectations or my goals. I am born a champion. I can feel it in my blood.”