MELBOURNE, Australia — Desire, mental strength and a willpower as strong as anyone ever to play the game.
That’s what got Novak Djokovic over the line as he ground down Austrian Dominic Thiem 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 on Sunday to win his eighth Australian Open crown and take his overall Grand Slam tally to 17, just three behind the all-time leader Roger Federer and two behind Rafael Nadal.
“I’m blessed to hold this trophy once again,” Djokovic told the crowd after he extended his perfect record of winning all eight of his Australian Open finals, a win that will ensure he returns to world No. 1 when the rankings are officially updated on Monday.
“Congrats to Dominic for an amazing week, it wasn’t to be tonight, it was a tough match, but you are young and you will have many chances.”
Djokovic is the first man in the Open era and just the second ever after Australian Ken Rosewall to win a Grand Slam title in three decades.
When he won the title in Melbourne 12 months ago, Djokovic’s first pledge was that he would try everything to chase down Federer’s all-time Grand Slam record. Having outlasted Thiem, he will go to the French Open in May with renewed belief that he can overhaul both Federer and Nadal.
And the stats keep coming. Djokovic now has 78 career titles, one more than John McEnroe. He has won five Slams since turning 30, equaling Nadal, and he has won at least one title every year for 15 years.
Winning Grand Slam titles does not get any easier as the years go by, and Thiem, in his first Grand Slam final on hard courts, made him work harder even than he might have expected.
For long periods it looked as if Thiem, who has lost to Nadal in the past two years at Roland Garros, would become the first man to beat Djokovic in a Melbourne final and claim his first Slam title.
Djokovic began in much the same fashion as he played most of last year’s final against Nadal, returning aggressively and making just three unforced errors as he raced ahead 4-1.
Thiem, who had spent six hours more on court than Djokovic in getting to the final, looked slightly flat but just as quickly he broke back and leveled at 4-4, a double-fault two games later gave Djokovic the first set. But four wins over Djokovic in their five most recent battles had given Thiem belief that he could do the same on Rod Laver Arena. As the second set began, he started to unload on his backhand, the down-the-line strike yielding particular success.
His forehand, too, was causing some damage. The pressure he was exerting finally told as a Djokovic double-fault gave him a 2-1 lead. Still, Djokovic hit back to level at 4-4 but an altercation with the umpire over two time violations seemed to affect Djokovic’s rhythm as he dropped serve again, even risking a fine when he tapped the foot of umpire Damien Dumusois. “You made yourself famous,” Djokovic told the umpire. “Good job.”
Thiem served out the set to level, and Djokovic, who had consulted the doctor before the start of the third, was totally flat as Thiem dominated from the baseline, moving ahead two sets to one.
Djokovic had already shown signs of recovering physically at the end of the third set, but the turning point came early in the fourth when, at 1-1, the Serb saved a break point to stay ahead.
From that moment on, his body language changed, his intensity increased and he broke once to win the set and then again in the third game of the decider as Thiem began to tire.
Thiem had two break points to break straight back, but Djokovic held on, even serving and volleying on one of them. Then at 4-3, the Austrian had a last chance to level when he forced another break point in the eighth game, saved by Djokovic with a good serve.
That was the last key moment, and Djokovic closed out the match as Thiem sent a forehand long.
“Tonight it was a toe-to-toe battle,” he told Australia’s Channel 9. “I was on the brink of losing that match. I didn’t feel great. I had a couple of points, I think a break point in the fourth set, where I played serve and volley. It was kind of a courageous move, throwing it all in there, get things going. Unfortunately one of us had to lose but all respect to Dominic.
“I didn’t have any injuries but my energy just completely collapsed. Every time I would toss a ball, I would feel dizzy. I was lucky. From 2-2 in the fourth, I started to feel better. The doctor said maybe I had a couple of issues, I tried to get as many energy gels as I could. She told me I was dehydrated, so I tried to drink as much as I could.”
Thiem said he had given everything he could to win his first Slam.
“I’ve rarely felt physically that tired, especially now after all the tension’s gone,” the 26-year-old said. “I played an unbelievable intense match against Rafa, such an intense match against Sascha (Zverev) in the semis. Today again I think almost over four hours. I think that was very demanding.
“Of course, I just feel a lot of emptiness right now, but I know the feeling. I did after the last two in Paris, but also already now I feel little bit of motivation to come back for the next Grand Slam. If I have a little break, it’s going to be bigger.
“I’m very aware and sure now that I can play on a very high level for a full Grand Slam. Didn’t have any drops. That doesn’t make me proud, but it makes me very confident for the next big tournaments which are coming up.”
Djokovic, meanwhile, will head to Roland Garros with Nadal and Federer in his sights, as well as Federer’s all-time record for weeks at No. 1, which stands at 310, compared to Djokovic’s current mark of 275.
“It is my goal to win as many Grand Slam titles as possible at this stage in my career, that is what matters to me,” Djokovic said.
“I would definitely want to play for many more years, focusing mostly on the Grand Slams. In order to have a chance for the historic No. 1, I am going to do everything possible this season and next season, that’s what I can devote to this goal.”
With the motivation in place and the willpower undimmed, few would bet against him doing both.