Identifying the moment Novak Djokovic lost his aura at the top of men’s tennis

Kevin Palmer
Novak Djokovic during a press conference
Novak Djokovic speaks to the media at a press conference

To identify where Novak Djokovic’s Australian Open demise began, we need to go back to ten extraordinary minutes in Malaga last November.

Jannik Sinner was serving at 0-40 against an opponent who held three match points against him.

At that point, the match seemed to be over, with the identity of the player on the other side of the net cementing the suspicion that there was no way back for the Italian.

That opponent was Novak Djokovic.

The unbeatable, invincible king of men’s tennis had brought an aura onto the court for a decade and more often than not he crushed opponents on the rare occasions they got close to threatening him.

Yet in that Davis Cup semi-final in Spain, Djokovic not only blinked when the winning line was in sight – as this was a moment when the greatest of all time visibly choked before a stunning sell-out audience.

The way he played the next service game of that match to give Sinner the decisive break confirmed he had allowed his normally clinical mind to wander and when the same, leggy opponent returned to beat him in the doubles, Djokovic’s final matches of 2023 left a lasting scar.

After that chastening experience in Malaga, we all wondered what would happen the next time Djokovic played Sinner.

Vulnerability is not a word that has been associated with the world No 1 over the last decade and more, but he showed it in the final stages of his match against Sinner in the Davis Cup and it was on display in garish fashion as the same two players met in the Australian Open semi-finals.

After all that went on in their last meeting, the tennis world wondered whether this was the moment when the great Djokovic would be knocked off his perch and beaten for the first time at the Australian Open since 2018.

What transpired may have been even more significant as the scale of Sinner’s victory added weight to the belief that the incredible era of Djokovic dominance was finally coming to an end.

Djokovic played as poorly as we have seen him play at a Grand Slam, but that may have been because he was spooked by the presence of a young gun who finally seemed to have his number.

Sinner’s big serve and booming forehand appears to be too much for 36-year-old Djokovic to handle and he admitted after the match that his worst nightmares came true as he was beaten in Melbourne at last.

READ MORE: Novak Djokovic will be ‘relieved’ after ‘shocking’ semi-final display as ‘pressure was too much’, says top coach

“I guess this is one of the worst Grand Slam matches I’ve ever played,” conceded a crestfallen Djokovic.

“Not a very pleasant feeling playing this way, but at the same time, credit to him for doing everything better than me, you know, in every aspect of the game.

“I tried, I fought. I managed to kind of raise the level a little bit in the third, but overall the performance-wise level of my tennis was, you know, really not great.

“I guess in those moments you just try to, you know, find the serenity, but at the same time try to uplift, you know, yourself and your game. 

“It’s not the feeling that I’m used to. I mean, it kind of has been incredibly satisfying for me, you know, to start off most of my seasons with a Grand Slam win and never lost in semis or finals of the Australian Open.

“So this time it’s a bit different, but it is what it is. Let’s see. I don’t know. This tournament hasn’t been, as I said, up to my standard or criteria or the level that I would normally play or expect myself to play, but doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s beginning of the end, you know, as some people like to call it. Yeah, let’s see what happens in the rest of the season.”

His subsequent comments added to the suspicion that the end of his career may be sooner than we had expected during his dominant 2023.

“Let’s see how things will unfold in the future,” he added. “When you leave the court after a loss, the head is still hot – you are fighting to be rational, but there are many irrational thoughts going through your head.

“I want my thoughts to settle – when I calm down, I will move on and see what tournaments I will play.

“I made a commitment to myself that I will give it my all this year, with the priority being Slams and the Olympics.

“We’ll see whether something will change, in this stage of my life and my career some surprising decisions are maybe more expected compared to twenty years ago.”

It’s too early to declare the Djokovic era of dominance in men’s tennis is over and it would also be premature to suggest Sinner has found a way to defuse the greatest player of them all.

Yet it is evident that Djokovic has finally come up against an opponent who can beat him consistently and while Sinner is the big winner for now, the chasing pack will recognise that there is vulnerability in the world No 1 at last.