MELBOURNE, Australia — Maybe, just maybe, the thinking went, Novak Djokovic would be at least a tad more susceptible to trouble this time around at the Australian Open.
After all, he said he tore an abdominal muscle in the third round and wasn't sure he could continue to compete. Entering Sunday, the 33-year-old from Serbia had ceded five sets in the two-week tournament, the most he had ever dropped on his way to a major final. And to top it all off, he was facing Daniil Medvedev, the owner of a 20-match winning streak who had youth on his side.
Well, Medvedev's run is over. And whatever trouble Djokovic may have encountered ahead of the final, he made sure he was happy at the end.
As for any possible footholds for his Russian opponent to give a serious boost to his rising star on this day, it's worth remembering it was still a title match against Djokovic at Melbourne Park, where the veteran's dominance is most certainly intact at 9-0 in the finals. Plus, he's still gaining on Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the Grand Slam standings, up to 18 overall in men's singles, two shy of the record those rivals share.
Djokovic used improved serving, along with his usual relentless returning and baseline excellence, to grab 11 of 13 games in one stretch and beat Medvedev 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 for a third consecutive Australian Open trophy.
"Definitely, emotionally the most challenging Grand Slam that I ever had, with everything that was happening: injury, off-the-court stuff, quarantines," Djokovic said. "A roller-coaster ride."
When the match was over after less than two hours, Djokovic went to the sideline, lifted his white shirt and peeled pieces of beige athletic tape from his stomach.
"I was quite worried," Djokovic said about the injury, explaining that last week he didn't think "realistically that I could actually play. I didn't know until two hours before the fourth-round match."
Dealing with what he called "bearable" pain, Djokovic improved to a combined 18-0 in semifinals and finals on Melbourne's hard courts.
"Probably, it's not your last one. I have no words to say," said Medvedev, who turned 25 this month and was in his second Grand Slam title match, having lost the 2019 U.S. Open final to Nadal in five sets.
Djokovic has won six of the past 10 majors and will stay at No. 1 in the ATP rankings at least through March 8. That will give him 311 weeks there, breaking another mark held by Federer, the 39-year-old from Switzerland who had knee surgery last year and didn't compete in Australia.
"I do enjoy the success every single time even more," Djokovic said, "because I know that the longer the time passes, the more difficult it's going to become."
Now, even more than before, Djokovic's goals are squarely focused on Grand Slams.
Put his nine triumphs in Australia alongside five at Wimbledon, three at the U.S. Open and one at the French Open. The math looks good for him because he is considerably younger than Federer where athletic careers are concerned, and he's almost a year younger than Spanish star Nadal, who was seeded second in Melbourne but lost a five-set quarterfinal.
"They've made history already. They made a tremendous mark in our sport," Djokovic said. "Whether I think about winning more Slams and breaking records? Of course I do. And most of my attention and my energy from this day forward, until I retire from tennis, is going to be directed (toward) majors, trying to win more major trophies."
Medvedev, of course, would just like to get that first one. The No. 4 seed, he had won 12 matches in a row against opponents ranked in the top 10 — but trying to solve Djokovic in Australia is a unique challenge.
"He's really good reading an opponent's game," Medvedev said, "knowing what you will do next, how to beat you."
As things slipped away, Medvedev bounced his white racket off the blue court, then absolutely destroyed it with a full-on spike. He kept looking up at his coach with palms up as if to ask, "What can I possibly do here?"
It is a familiar sentiment in this stadium: Federer, Nadal, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem — all Grand Slam champions, all defeated by Djokovic in semifinals or finals in Melbourne.
On a cool, cloudy evening, a tournament that had its start delayed three weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic closed with an announced attendance of 7,426 in Rod Laver Arena. Spectators were barred for five days during the middle of the event because of a local COVID-19 lockdown, but they eventually were let back in at 50% capacity.
"There are a lot of mixed feelings about what has happened in the last month or so with tennis players coming to Australia," Djokovic said. "But I think when we draw a line at the end, it was a successful tournament for the organizers."
And for him. One way the extreme experience gap showed: Djokovic broke his opponent's serve seven times and made merely 17 unforced errors to Medvedev's 30.
"Coming to Australia, it always brings that extra dose of confidence to me," Djokovic said, "because of my record here and because of how I play."
Goran Ivanisevic, the 2001 Wimbledon champion who is one of Djokovic's coaches, called this performance a "masterpiece."
As for the Big Three's battle for ultimate ownership of the men's singles record, Ivanisevic predicted Nadal will win "one more, maybe two" titles at the French Open, where he secured a 13th last year. That is the only instance of a man owning more singles titles from one major than Djokovic's haul in Australia. Federer's high is eight at Wimbledon. All have career Grand Slams.
"Roger and Rafa inspire me. That's something that I've said before. I'll say it again," Djokovic said. "I mean, I think as long as they go, I'll go."