ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Serbia's Novak Djokovic makes a backhand return to Austria's Dominic Thiem during the men's singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Amid last week's Super Bowl hype, the presidential impeachment trial, the usual glut of semi-meaningful college basketball games and the worldwide mourning of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others killed in that horrific helicopter crash, it was certainly understandable to overlook the Australian Open tennis tournament.

Yes, it's a major, and, yes, it had its own gut-wrenching back story this time around, thanks to the deadly wildfires that have killed dozens of Aussies and close to half a billion animals and destroyed millions of acres of land throughout the continent.

But perhaps because American men have become about as irrelevant at the highest levels of professional tennis as they've long been at the highest levels of pro soccer, tennis is rarely a top newsmaker here in the U.S. until Wimbledon rolls around in midsummer.

There's also the not-so-little fact that many of the best matches at the Aussie Open are played at 3:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, which means only the most passionate of tennis fans, insomniacs or zombies are going to tune in.

some text
Novak Djokovic makes a backhand return to Dominic Thiem in the Australian Open men's singles final Sunday night in Melbourne. / AP photo by Andy Brownbill

Still, to watch Novak Djokovic claim his 17th major singles title early Sunday morning against Dominic Thiem was to realize that the eventual GOAT (Greatest of All Time) of men's tennis ultimately may be neither current leader Roger Federer and his 20 majors, nor runner-up Rafa Nadal with his 19, but rather the Djoker, who probably has the purest, most lethal ground strokes off both wings that the sport has ever seen.

"Amazing achievement," Thiem said after grudgingly surrendering a 2-1 lead in sets in the best-of-five format. "Unreal what you're doing throughout all these years. You, and also two other guys, I think you brought men's tennis to a complete new level."

There is no "think" about it, of course. For close to two decades now we have watched Federer and Nadal, joined by Djokovic over the past dozen years, lift the level of their sport as perhaps no trio of men ever has at the same time, though the golfing heyday of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player may have come close, and arguably greater in terms of worldwide fan appeal.

Still, when Pete Sampras retired from tennis after winning the 2002 U.S. Open, he was the all-time leader in Grand Slam singles titles with 14, two ahead of Roy Emerson.

In the 18 years since, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have all passed him. Comfortably. In fact, the Big Three have won 13 consecutive Slams and 56 of the past 67. Talk about a new level. Beyond that, no one currently on the men's tour who's under the age of 30 has yet to win a single major.

And while Djokovic still trails Federer and Nadal in Grand Slam titles, with Sunday's Aussie Open crown he becomes the first player in history to win at least one major in three different decades.

some text
Serbia's Novak Djokovic carries the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup around Rod Laver Arena after defeating Austria's Dominic Thiem in the men's singles final of the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, early Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

"Obviously, at this stage of my career, Grand Slams are the ones I value the most," the 32-year-old Djokovic noted as he held the winner's trophy. "They are the ones I prioritize. Before the season starts, I try to set my form, shape for these events where I can be at my prime tennis mental and physical abilities."

How much longer that prime will last for the Big Three is open to debate, particularly where the 38-year-old Federer is concerned. Despite reaching the Aussie semis before falling to Djokovic in straight sets, he struggled throughout the fortnight, despite being handed a remarkably favorable draw.

At his best, Federer can still beat anyone, as he proved by ousting Nadal in four sets in their Wimbledon semi last summer, and when he dominated Djokovic in a straight-set win in the year-end tourney in London.

But the days he's below his best have become more common, and while none of the Generation Next — as the ATP labels such rising stars as Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, Nick Kyrgios and Thiem — has yet won a major, they've begun to post victories against Federer in particular.

The first measure of how much Nadal — who will turn 34 on June 3 — has left in the tank will come during the French Open. He's won a dozen of them in his career, and there's no reason to think he can't or won't add to that.

Despite capturing last year's U.S. Open against Medvedev, his body often appears the most fragile of the three. Should he come up short at this year's French, his window to catch or pass Federer's 20 majors may be about to close.

some text
Novak Djokovic signs autographs as he holds the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup at Margaret Court Arena after beating Dominic Thiem in the Australian Open men's singles final Sunday night in Melbourne. / AP photo by Andy Brownbill

That, of course, leaves Djokovic, who still seems to be improving, if that's possible. A single example: Rarely known for his net play, he charged the net more than once in the final two sets against Thiem, hitting several deftly struck volleys for winners.

To underscore that improvement, he said: "I served and volleyed when I was facing break point in the fourth and in the fifth. It worked both of the times. It could also have been differently. Serve-and-volley is not something I'm accustomed to."

If he can so flawlessly execute something he's not accustomed to under such pressure, it's hard to see him not finishing ahead of both Federer and Nadal in major championships, given his age and his talent. Epecially since he's won five of the last seven majors.

Asked on Sunday how he's come to dominate so over the past couple of years, Djokovic said of his mental preparation, "The only thing that's real is the present."

Presently, the only one of the Big Three who's winning more majors than he's losing is the Djoker.

some text
Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT