Tennis: Novak Djokovic wins record-extending ninth Australian Open title easily

Novak Djokovic celebrating after defeating Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open final on Feb 21, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

MELBOURNE (REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, XINHUA) - Novak Djokovic beat Daniil Medvedev 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 to win a record-extending ninth Australian Open title on Sunday (Feb 21).

The win at Rod Laver Arena gave the 33-year-old Serb his 18th Grand Slam tennis crown, putting him just two behind the record 20 jointly held by Swiss great Roger Federer and Spanish ace Rafael Nadal.

Djokovic demolished the fourth seed in front of 7,400 fans to end the Russian's unbeaten run at 20 matches.

In winning his third straight Australian Open, he denied Medvedev his first. The 25-year-old had lost his first Grand Slam final at the 2019 US Open.

Much like Dominic Thiem in last year's final, Djokovic faced an opponent desperate for success and his own seat at the Grand Slam table.

But unlike the Austrian, who pushed Djokovic to five sets, Medvedev never really threatened.

Djokovic made a mockery of the Russian's 20-match winning streak and his pre-match barb that all the pressure to win was on the champion.

He broke him seven times for the match and closed out the one-sided contest with a net-rush and a brilliant leaping volley.

Having extended his unbeaten record in nine finals at Melbourne Park, the Serb roared in triumph and wrapped up his team in a group hug.

He now has won six Grand Slam titles after the age of 30, equalling Nadal's record.

Rarely has a player been so dominant at a single tournament with the Serb's record-extending ninth title moving him past Federer's eight at Wimbledon but still a long way behind the 13 Nadal has won at Roland Garros.

But it was a roller-coaster ride to get there, with Djokovic dropping five sets en route to the final and battling an abdominal injury that nearly forced him to pull out after the third round.

Despite admitting it was a gamble to keep playing, with a risk the injury could get worse and affect the rest of his season, he chose to continue and it paid off.

"It has been definitely emotionally the most challenging Grand Slam that I ever had with everything that was happening, injury, off-the-court stuff, quarantines," he said.

"It has been, least to say, a roller-coaster ride in the last four weeks."

Djokovic confirmed the injury was a tear of the abdominal oblique muscle and credited his rapid recovery to the work of his medical team and sufficient rest between matches.

"I was quite worried. I did not look realistically that I could actually play," he said.

"Of course, I haven't done it myself. Medical team, my physio, has done tremendous work. With God's grace, I managed to achieve what I achieved and I'm very thankful," he said.

On whether he could have played better, Medvedev said: "He was aggressive. He was making winners when he had to. We're just coming again to the moment where he was a better tennis player today, without a doubt. Which is disappointing for me, but not much else to say."

The Russian is one of the smartest players on tour, keeping his opponents guessing with his flat and low groundstrokes, changing up the pace and angles, as he blends impenetrable defence with opportunistic offence.

But the Serb, who held a 4-3 head-to-head record against him but had lost three of the previous four, had his measure.

Wild backhand

In front of a pro-Djokovic crowd, Medvedev overcooked two forehands on his opening service game then sent one into the net to hand the Serb the first break points, then a wild backhand saw him immediately on the back foot.

Djokovic consolidated with a serve to love before the Russian finally got off the mark with a wobbly hold for 1-3. But then a failed drop shot and net volley from the top seed allowed the Russian to break back.

Long rallies ensued and it went with serve until some brilliant groundstrokes from Djokovic earned three break points at 6-5. Medvedev saved two but not the third to lose the opening set.

Undeterred, the tall, pencil-thin Russian kept coming and dialled up the pressure to break Djokovic's opening serve in set two, only for the Serb to immediately strike back. Djokovic won three games in a row, despite the disruption of two fans being ejected in an apparent refugee protest, as he took control.

He raced to a 5-2 lead with Medvedev smashing his racquet in frustration as the set and the championship began slipping away.

Deflated, Medvedev dropped his opening serve in set three and never looked like finding a way back as Djokovic, in his 28th Grand Slam final compared to the Russian's second, drew on his experience to close out the match, dropping to the court in celebration.

The win reinforced Djokovic's status as world No. 1, where he will mark his 311th week when the new rankings come out on Monday, surpassing Federer's record of 310. Medvedev will move to a career-high third in the rankings, behind Nadal.

Towards the end, Medvedev could only look to his wife and coach in his player's box and shrug as his errors piled up and the points slipped away.

"In the end, I lost in three sets where I didn't play bad but I didn't play my best level. Probably he made his game that good today that I couldn't stay at my best level," he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.