MELBOURNE: An emotional Novak Djokovic called it “the biggest victory in my life” after sweeping past Stefanos Tsitsipas to win a 10th Australian Open title and equal Rafael Nadal’s 22 Grand Slam crowns on Sunday.
The Serb will return to world number one as he overcame a hamstring injury and off-court drama to defeat the Greek third seed 6-3, 7-6 (7/4), 7-6 (7/5) on Rod Laver Arena.
The 35-year-old climbed to his player’s box afterwards to embrace his mother and broke down in uncontrollable tears, collapsing to the ground sobbing.
His father Srdjan was again missing after he sparked controversy by posing with a fan carrying a Russian flag featuring Vladimir Putin’s face following his son’s quarter-final win.
The emphatic victory over Tsitsipas capped a remarkable return for Djokovic to Melbourne Park, having missed last year’s tournament when he was deported over his Covid vaccination stance.
“I have to say this has been one of the most challenging tournaments I’ve ever played considering the circumstances, not playing last year, coming back this year,” he said, wearing a jacket with 22 emblazoned on it.
“I want to thank all the people that made me feel welcome, comfortable, to be in Melbourne.
“I try to pinch myself and really live through these moments, it’s a long journey,” added Djokovic, who was more emotional than usual.
“Only my team and family know what we have been through in the last four or five weeks and this is why I’d probably say this is the biggest victory in my life considering the circumstances.”
There had been an air of inevitability about Djokovic triumphing once more.
After his three-year ban from Australia was lifted, he won the lead-up Adelaide International before reinforcing his status as an all-time great in Melbourne.
His dominant win drew him level with Nadal on a record 22 Slams, two clear of now-retired Roger Federer.
The Spanish great made a second-round exit with a hip injury, one of a series of shocks which upended the men’s and women’s draws during the first major of the year.
“I guess we always find the A-game on the Slams,” Djokovic said of equalling his old rival Nadal. “This is what I feel both Nadal and myself probably still fight for.
“It is still what motivates us the most, winning the biggest titles in our sport and trying to keep up with the young guns.
“Tennis is in good hands,” he added. “But we’re still not going anywhere.”
Nadal and Djokovic have won 16 of the last 19 Slams.
The 36-year-old Spaniard though is set to slide down the rankings when they are released on Monday, in contrast to Djokovic.
The Serb will dethrone Spanish teenager Carlos Alcaraz and return to the top for the first time since June. Tsitsipas will climb one place to three.
Both men were back on a court that helped them rise to stardom.
Djokovic won his first Grand Slam in 2008 on Rod Laver Arena while Tsitsipas burst on the scene in 2019 when he stunned defending champion Federer in the last 16.
Moving freely with only minimal strapping on his troublesome left hamstring, Djokovic opened with a comfortable hold after being greeted by huge cheers.
He worked two break points on Tsitsipas’s opening serve, to no avail, but kept probing and the Greek handed him a break for 3-1 with a careless double fault.
Tsitsipas, 24, in only his second Grand Slam final to Djokovic’s 33rd, appeared nervous, losing the first set.
But he battled back into contention in a much closer second set as his confidence grew, earning his first break point — and set point — when Djokovic blasted a backhand wide.
But the Serb clung on to keep the set on serve and it went to a tiebreak, where his greater experience roared to the fore.
Against the odds, Tsitsipas broke for the first time on Djokovic’s opening serve in set three, only to relinquish the advantage immediately after a gripping rally.
It again went to a tiebreak, where Djokovic once again raised a level.
“I’ve had the privilege to play a lot of difficult, high-intensity matches, but I would like to say one more time Novak brings the best out in me,” said Tsitsipas, who is still yet to win a major.
“He’s the greatest that has ever held a tennis racquet, for sure.
“I don’t think there’s any reason for me to be affected by today’s loss,” he added.
“It is a step forward. I’m looking forward to scoring more points during this season, making bigger results, fighting for bigger trophies.”