Can an Australian Open title settle Novak Djokovic’s GOAT claim once and for all?

Can an Australian Open title settle Novak Djokovic’s GOAT claim once and for all?

MELBOURNE, Australia — Carlos Alcaraz was just 14 years old the last time Novak Djokovic lost a match at the Australian Open. It was 2018, in the fourth round, and unheralded South Korean Hyeon Chung produced the performance of a lifetime to take down Djokovic in straight sets. It remains one of the most shocking results in Grand Slam tennis history.

Since that day, Djokovic has been on an absolute tear. He has won 12 of the 20 majors he has contested, regained the world No. 1 ranking and more than doubled his career prize money, which now sits north of $180 million.

He has also remained unbeaten at the Australian Open and enjoyed four perfect runs to the title.

But despite all the dominance in the latter phase of his glittering career, and the fact that there continues to be a lack of consistent competition at the top of the men’s game, there have been minor hurdles. And while it may not have been extreme panic or concern, murmurings began to bubble after Djokovic’s unexpected loss to Alex de Minaur earlier this month at the United Cup in Perth.

Djokovic was soundly beaten 6-4, 6-4 by the 24-year-old Australian, his first loss Down Under since that match against Chung in 2018. The world No. 1 battled discomfort in his right wrist, twice calling for a physiotherapist during the first set. On the court, Djokovic struggled with his serve, producing an uncharacteristic number of unforced errors, and winning just 49 of the 117 points played.

Then, in his first-round match in Melbourne on Sunday, talented Croatian teenager Dino Prizmic tested him and at times looked to have the contest on his terms. Prizmic more than held his own in the baseline slugfest, showcasing his Djokovic-like defensive skills and an ability to attack at precisely the right time. But in the key moments it was Djokovic, once again, rising to the occasion, ultimately winning 6-2, 7-6, 6-3, 6-4 to book a date with Australia’s Alexei Popyrin.

The Australian Open, after all, is Djokovic’s favorite and most successful event, and he has utterly dominated at Melbourne Park throughout his career. Not only has he won the title a jaw-dropping 10 times — more than Roger Federer and Rod Laver combined — but he’s a perfect 20-0 in semifinals and finals and, since the beginning of 2008, boasts what seems an impossible 87-5 record (95% win rate) in the tournament.

If Djokovic’s name is in the draw, he’s the one to beat. Period. Even at age 36, he remains the best player in the sport — the loss to de Minaur changing nothing — and on the fast blue courts at Melbourne Park, that gulf between him and the next crop is only being magnified once again.

What’s more concerning for Djokovic’s rivals is that on the eve of the tournament he eased any concerns about that wrist injury he picked up against de Minaur in Perth. And at no point did it appear to bother him against Prizmic.

“My wrist is good,” he said. “I had time from the last match against de Minaur in the United Cup to my first match here to recover. I’ve been training well. Practice sessions pain-free so far.”

Bookmakers believe Djokovic is the man to beat once again, installing him as an odds-on favorite for the title ahead of the tournament. Longtime rival Andy Murray also agrees it’s Djokovic’s event to lose.

“A lot of people were saying the landscape had shifted after Wimbledon, and it didn’t really shift. Novak won three Slams and lost a five-set epic final at Wimbledon,” Murray said on the eve of the Australian Open. “When the Australian Open rolls around it’s not going to be easy for [the younger players] to win against Novak in a huge match, because some of them are trying to do it for the first time. I know it doesn’t get easier the older you get, but I still believe that he’s the favorite [for the Australian Open].”

There’s also extra incentive for Djokovic this year as yet another career-defining record looms large. An unprecedented 11th crown at Melbourne Park would take his major singles titles tally to 25, eclipsing the mark set by Margaret Court between 1960 and 1973.

That achievement may have a legitimate chance of standing for eternity, and it will certainly tip the GOAT debate — an unofficial crown he is desperate to hold — in his favor, if it’s not already.

For many, the title of greatest men’s tennis player of all time boils down to the three modern-day titans of Rafael Nadal, Federer and Djokovic. But the case for either Nadal or Federer appears to be shrinking with each passing year as Djokovic continues to defy Father Time — he is the oldest player ranked in the top 40, at No. 1, no less — and add to both his trophy cabinet and legacy.

Djokovic already owns the most Grand Slam titles (24), most ATP Finals (7), most weeks at No. 1 (407), most career prize money and the most wins head-to-head against both Federer and Nadal. With Federer now retired and Nadal suffering yet another injury setback, which forced him to withdraw from the Australian Open, both sets of numbers are unlikely to change.

Unsurprisingly, the Serbian’s confidence is sky-high. When asked ahead of the tournament who he considered his greatest threat to the title, he quipped, “myself.”

“It’s exciting to be a part of another Slam. We know what Grand Slams represent for our sport — it’s where every player wants to play their best tennis,” Djokovic said. “I want to win every Slam that I participate and play on. It’s no different this year, [and] I’m just hoping I can start the season in a way that I have been starting most of my seasons throughout my career: with a win here in Australia, in Melbourne. My favorite place, no doubt. The court where I’ve done great things and achieved my greatest Grand Slam results.

“I hope that I’m going to be able to, if not play at the level that I did last year, then be very close to that, because that was one of the best tennis levels that I’ve played, ever played, here in Australia last year.”

Djokovic has already banked one of the seven victories required to reach outright tennis immortality. Now, just six more stand in his way.

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