Novak Djokovic was looking weary and worn down. He trailed Dominic Thiem in the Australian Open final — miscues mounting, deficit growing.
Djokovic did what he does, though. He refused to lose, waited for a chance to pounce and found his best tennis when absolutely necessary.
Regaining his stamina and strokes, Djokovic came back to edge Thiem 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 Sunday night for an eighth Australian Open title, second in a row, and 17th Grand Slam trophy overall.
“Definitely my favorite court, my favorite stadium in the world,” Djokovic told the crowd at Rod Laver Arena during the trophy presentation.
This victory improved Djokovic’s combined record in semifinals and finals in that stadium to 16-0 and means he will return to No. 1 in the rankings, replacing Rafael Nadal in that spot.
No other man in the history of tennis has won this hard-court tournament more than six times. Only Roger Federer, with 20, and Nadal, with 19, have won more men’s Grand Slam singles trophies than Djokovic.
“Amazing achievement. Unreal what you’re doing throughout all these years,” said the fifth-seeded Thiem, who is 0-3 in major finals. “You and also two other guys, I think you brought men’s tennis to a complete new level. I’m proud and happy I can compete in these times and this period of tennis. I fell a little bit short today, but I hope I can get, soon, revenge.”
Both finalists spoke about the devastating wildfires that have killed dozens of people and millions of animals around Australia. Djokovic also mentioned the recent deaths of NBA star Kobe Bryant and one of his daughters in a helicopter crash.
Addressing Thiem, Djokovic told him: “It wasn’t meant to be tonight. Tough luck. .. You were very close to win it and you definitely have a lot more time in your career. I am sure you will definitely get one of the Grand Slam trophies. More than one.”
A little more than six months after saving a pair of championship points against Federer en route to winning a five-set Wimbledon final, Djokovic again showed that he can’t ever be counted out.
It did not come easily this time for Djokovic, a 32-year-old from Serbia. He lost six games in a row in one stretch to Thiem, who plays a similar game and eliminated Nadal in the quarterfinals.
Djokovic was down two sets to one. He was visited by a doctor and trainer in the third set and, desperate to hydrate, guzzled bottles of water and energy drink. He lectured the chair umpire about time violations.
This was not the dominant Djokovic who made a hard-to-believe total of nine unforced errors during his straight-set triumph over Nadal in the final a year ago. Djokovic eclipsed that total in the first set alone Sunday and finished with 57.
It was a physical test offering plenty of entertaining exchanges, with 61 points lasting at least nine shots apiece.
Suddenly making a charge as his less-experienced foe faltered, Djokovic broke to lead 5-3 in the fourth set, helped by a sloppy volley into the net tape, a double-fault and a bad forehand by Thiem.
In the fifth set, another missed forehand by Thiem let Djokovic break to go up 2-1. Djokovic faced a challenge in the next game, when Thiem held a pair of break points but couldn’t convert. The spectacle would continue for another 30 minutes, approaching four hours, but that was pretty much that.
Soon, Djokovic would get to clutch the silver Australian Open trophy he also won in 2008, 2011-13, 2015-16 and 2019.
He adds that haul to his five titles from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open and one from the French Open.
Thiem, an Austrian who is 26, was the runner-up to Nadal at Roland Garros each of the past two years and was again trying to become the first man born in the 1990s to win a major singles title.
Instead, the Big Three have won 13 consecutive Slams and 56 of the last 67.
In addition, Djokovic is the first man in the professional era to win a major in each of three decades — the 2000s, 2010s and 2020s.
He keeps gaining on rivals Federer and Nadal: This was his fifth trophy from the past seven Slams, going 5-0 in finals.
That streak appeared in peril in the third set, when Djokovic merely watched and shook his head as a lob by Thiem curled over him and in. Djokovic didn’t chase it. Wasn’t entirely clear what the issue was, but perhaps he knew he needed to save some strength.
Heat, so often a factor in Melbourne, was not an issue. The crisp, cool conditions were pretty much ideal at the start, with a light breeze and the temperature around 70 degrees (20 Celsius). That dropped as the natural light faded, first leaving a violet ceiling of sky before nightfall arrived, accompanied by alarmingly loud squawks from a flock of seagulls perched on steel railings atop the arena.
Not surprisingly, given his experience and expertise, Djokovic came out loose, limber and locked in. Of the initial half-dozen points lasting at least nine strokes, he won all six. Within 13 minutes, he was ahead 3-0, as a chorus of his nickname — “No-le! No-le! No-le!” — rang out.
Undaunted, Thiem displayed praiseworthy patience, and when Djokovic’s aim and focus betrayed him, this became an intriguing contest.
At 4-all in the second set, Djokovic was warned by chair umpire Damien Dumusois for taking too much time before a serve. A poor drop shot found the net to set up break point, and Dumusois again cited Djokovic for letting the 25-second clock expire; the penalty was a fault. A tepid 85 mph second serve followed, and Djokovic flubbed a forehand to give Thiem a 5-4 lead.
As Djokovic walked to the changeover, he tapped Dumusois on the left shoe, gave him a thumbs-up, then sat down and told him, “You made yourself famous.”
That was part of a six-game run that gave Thiem the second set — Djokovic had taken 16 in a row since the opening round — and control of the third.
Just as it seemed Thiem might be on his way, Djokovic made a stand.