And then the thing has never happened, happened.
Novak Djokovic lost in the semifinals of the Australian Open Friday to Jannik Sinner, the first time he has lost a semifinal or a final in the tournament he has won a record 10 times — a perfect 20-0 in the tournament’s most important matches.
Sinner, the rising 22-year-old Italian who beat Djokovic twice at the end of last year, crushed a strangely out-of-sync Djokovic early and prevented Djokovic from making one of his signature surges to beat the 24-time Grand Slam champion 6-1, 6-2, 6-7(6), 6-3.
Djokovic could have gone quietly but didn’t, saving match point in the third set tiebreaker with a lunging backhand and a magical topspin lob. When he cut the deficit in half two puts later, edging within a set, he turned to the crowd with a grin and a pumped fist as he strutted to the side of the court, cheers of “Novak, Novak” raining down on him. Anybody who has watched Djokovic escape so many near-death experiences, especially in Australia, would have been a fool to have not thought another wild comeback might be in the offing.
Not on this day. Not against Sinner, who not only did let Djokovic break his serve once, he never even gave him a single chance. Sinner also broke Djokovic five times, the decisive one coming early in the fourth set, in a game as strange as Djokovic’s afternoon. Sinner climbed from 40-0, then accepted the rare good fortune of a double fault and a long forehand to grab a 3-1 lead. And then all he had to do was the same thing he’d been doing all day, and he did.
With one last perfect forehand down the line, Sinner had sealed it, and Djokovic was trotting to the net in defeat. Within seconds, he had his bags on his shoulders, his hands in the air with two thumbs up to the crowd that treats him as one of their own.
“I tried to keep pushing,” Sinner said. “I lost last year to him in the semis of Wimbledon. I learned a lot from that.”
Roger Federer is retired. Rafael Nadal is almost there. Djokovic’s last challenge is staving off the next next generation, led by Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz as long as he can. It’s turning into the ultimate inter-generational spectacle, filled with nerves, twists, and sub-plots at every turn.
Sinner burst out of the starting gate like the junior skiing champion he was. He did nearly everything right in the first set, helped immeasurably by Djokovic, who did just about everything wrong.
He pushed Djokovic deep behind the baseline, then sent him on the runs, chasing balls that bounced in and jumped outside the boundary lines, then firing into the open court on those points when Djokovic was able to catch up to the ball and get it back.
He knocked in a solid 65 percent of his first serves and won 80 percent of those points, depriving Djokovic of even the whiff of a chance to do much damage. He chose the right moments to charge forward, winning the point every time he went to the net.
It takes two to play tennis though, and Sinner’s potency got plenty of lift from Djokovic’s inability to do even normal Djokovic things early on – extend points until his opponent’s game breaks down, use his serve to pin Sinner in the back of the court, or even land his first serve with any level of consistency. His backhand, maybe the most reliable and dangerous of all the backhands in tennis, sailed wide or long and sometimes both, over and over and over.
When the first set ended, the sort of set that Djokovic almost never plays, his stat sheet told an ugly story – he made just 43 percent of his first serves and won just 15 of the 43 points he and Sinner played.
The second set was more of the same with some slight improvements but nearly the same results. An early break of serve from Sinner, and another one late. Djokovic chasing and reaching out for balls and sending them into the middle of the net. Attempts to push forward that ended with his head on a swivel watching another passing shot zip by. Fourteen unforced errors, outscored on points 28-17.
Again, it takes two in tennis, and it’s never completely clear how much one player’s stellar play is causing the other’s crap. On Friday afternoon, on the court Djokovic has mostly ruled and never lost a semifinal or a final, where no one has beaten him in five years, the answer, as ever, was twofold.
Ever since Sinner came onto the tour and made his first Grand Slam run to the quarterfinals at the French Open in 2020, there has been one word that smart people in tennis use to describe Sinner – solid. In many ways, it’s the ultimate compliment, the thing fellow players say about someone who always shows up and almost never beats himself.
Sinner was as solid as ever, barely giving Djokovic openings to land that first smack across the jaw and smother him like he has so often, to so many others after a slow start. Djokovic knows better than anyone who has ever played how to step on an opponent’s neck. But first he has to knock them to the ground, and he never did.
There’s another word that gets thrown around the locker room and practice courts when players and their coaches talk about Sinner. It describes the feel of his ball when it hit’s their racket – it’s “heavy”.
Combine a heavy ball with someone is barely making any mistakes, especially on his own serve, and playing on a set of 22-year-old legs that now move as well as anyone’s and it’s going to take just about the best player on the planet and there are very few players on the planet who would not be in for a rough afternoon. Sometimes you are flat and slow and error-prone because your opponent makes you that way, even when you are Novak Djokovic.
Through it all, Djokovic wore a mostly blank expression. He barely looked at his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, for suggestions. He didn’t yell at his box for not giving him more support. He didn’t break a racket on the net post. He didn’t pick a fight with any of the Sinner fans who were not shy about screaming their support for their guy, often in Italian, one of the many languages Djokovic speaks fluently.
Most often, those are things Djokovic does against lesser opponents when he can spare the energy while chasing a spark. Against Sinner of Friday, anyone could see from the first ball that he was going to need every ounce of energy in his reserves. And then some.
Whatever he had, whatever he did, it wasn’t enough, and in the late afternoon of Melbourne Park, Djokovic’s record in semifinals and finals at the Australian Open fell to 20-1.
(Photo: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)