It often seems as if Rafael Nadal plays tennis by his own set of rules. He can follow would-be winners wide of the wings of the court and turn them back, as if he’s had ample time to position himself. His shots leap supernaturally, as if they’re bouncing off springs. His forehands frequently look like they’re picking up speed, rather than losing it, as they near the end of their paths. He is sometimes injured, but never tired. Watching Nadal can feel like watching somebody cheat physics in plain sight. Playing against him, according to the Greek up-and-comer Stefanos Tsitsipas, can seem like entering a “different dimension of tennis.”
When Novak Djokovic is in the zone, none of this matters. He dampens the shock from even the most powerful, dynamic shots. He runs, not so much quickly as endlessly, until his opponent cannot keep up. Attempting to beat Djokovic in the zone is akin to trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube while the colors change. And boy, is Djokovic ever in the zone right now.
Sunday’s Australian Open final between Djokovic and Nadal was expected to be a dragging brawl that stretched deep into the night. The duo is known for playing tense five-setters; their last meeting, in last year’s Wimbledon semifinals, took two days and more than five hours. The last time they faced off in Melbourne, in 2012, they famously battled for nearly six hours. This time the result was clear after two. Djokovic’s 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 dissection of Nadal put all of his talents on display: his vision, his relentless movement, and his ability to cut tight and improbable angles. It’s rare to see Nadal frustrated, and unprecedented to see him totally confounded. Never before had a Slam final between the two ended in three sets; this felt like it ended in even fewer.
Djokovic in this mode can do no wrong between the lines. On Sunday, he made nine (nine!) total errors. Nadal made 28. Djokovic has maintained this caliber of form before. His current run of three consecutive major wins is the third such streak of his career. And the last time he was on this kind of a roll, starting at Wimbledon in 2015, he managed to hold all four major titles at once, something his rivals Nadal and Roger Federer have never done. Djokovic will have the chance to complete another Novak Slam at Roland Garros this spring. Recently, history on the tour has tended to repeat itself.
Djokovic is 11 years removed from his first win at the Australian Open. Since then, the new has become the established. Blue Plexicushion had only just replaced the sticky, green rebound ace surface on the courts at Melbourne Park back in 2008; now, the neon surface is the tournament’s calling card. Djokovic has gone from a challenger who spoiled Federer’s attempt at a three-peat into a seven-time champion who is perhaps the tournament’s signature star. This is Djokovic’s 15th major victory, and conversations will inevitably shift toward his chase of Federer’s record of 20 and his place in the game’s all-time hierarchy. But those conversations obscure what is most compelling and unique thing about Djokovic: When he’s at his best, he may be the most unbeatable tennis player the world has ever seen.
I wrote about Djokovic before last year’s U.S. Open, contending that while he might seem like more of a pained champion than his rivals, he has carved out a space for himself through sheer willpower. Federer seemed to rule through divine right; Djokovic uses a grueling grassroots campaign. That may sound like a slight, but it isn’t. Many aspects that do not seem central to Djokovic’s identity have led to all-time achievements. Wimbledon may not be his kingdom, yet he’s one of the All England Club’s most decorated champions. Speed may not be his best weapon, but few players are faster than him. Djokovic dropped two sets over the course of this tournament. The 2019 Australian Open might not seem like one of his most dominant two-week stretches ever, but watch the matches again. Perhaps your mind will change. Perception is reality, only Djokovic is exempt.