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January 27, 2019

Now that every week feels like a year, it can be a bit vertigo-inducing to remember that the U.S. Open happened fairly recently. Remember that whole thing? Naomi Osaka played an absolutely lights-out tournament, including a final in which neither the stage nor Serena appeared to faze her whatsoever. She dominated, which makes it all the stranger that her performance mostly got drowned out by a chauvinistic umpire deciding that that moment was, instead, his. Osaka cried on the podium, trophy in hand. This—the booing, the controversy, everything we’d spend the following weeks discussing instead of her play—was not what she deserved.

 

But one especially absurd piece of attempted consoling cropped up in that day’s wake: Don’t worry, this line went, talking about a major championship like it was the eggs she forgot at the store. She will get another one.

 

If nothing else, this period of tennis has certainly warped our sense of scale. While it doesn’t immediately feel like it, we have to understand that it is extraordinary that Naomi Osaka did, in fact, get another one. The very next one. Her three-set win over Petra Kvitova in the Australian Open final a few days ago was another display of poise and big hitting under tremendous pressure. She held three championship points in the second set but got tight, then failed to close the match out on her serve, then lost the set on a double fault—all of this is leading toward a compliment, I promise. In that moment between the second and third sets, Kvitova had to be the pick: more big-match experience and a major winner herself, an aggressive left-handed game that was starting to cook, and a far younger opponent who had just mishandled what would probably be her only opportunity. This would be Kvitova. Kvitova hive assemble.

           

But Osaka did not fold, and the ensuing set looked as ordinary as a deciding set in a major final ever could. She got back to work off the ground, steady and overpowering, the type of style you play when you authentically believe you’re better. That Naomi Osaka believed that right then, and the way she was able to conjure this belief after faltering like she did just minutes earlier, is extraordinary, and we should treat it as such. She now holds titles from the last two majors, and holds the top ranking over a women’s game that feels as deep and talent-infused as it ever has.

           

At age twenty-one, Naomi Osaka got another one. As Kvitova’s final return sailed wide, Osaka went quiet. This bears repeating even as it gets lost in her star turn: we were wrong to expect—demand, it sometimes felt like—that she’d reach that moment of winning again. We should not have taken it from her the first time. But she did reach that moment, and now we’ll expect more from her. This is how it goes, now, and it is a profound and rare to find someone who looks so ready for it.

I know why we do this, the way we demand every winner do it again so that we can toss them into bar debates about legacy. We do it because in the twelve months since undergoing late-career elbow surgery, Novak Djokovic is capable of winning three majors in a row and casually swatting aside Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. We do it because men’s tennis events have featured just three truly feasible contenders for as long as we can remember, and those three men will apparently accumulate trophies amongst themselves for as long as they see fit to do so. The three greatest players of all time, all playing at once and against each other—it’s not supposed to happen like this. But here we are.

           

This brings us to last night. That above scoreline doesn’t really do justice to the match, in which Djokovic came out of the gate to win twelve of the first thirteen points and didn’t ever slow down. It was a demolition. In all the different matchup combinations between Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, the wrench in the works for me has always been what happens when Djokovic gets his hands on Nadal somewhere other than Paris. The feel is reminiscent of watching someone calmly pour dirt on a campfire.

 

Rafa was in form, this tournament. He was healthy and sharp and had beaten good players to get to the final, including breakout star Stefanos Tsitsipas, who appears to be a genuinely exciting mix of firepower, aggressive tactics, and all-in-one shampoo and conditioner. Nadal has always had problems with Djokovic, but all signs pointed toward this being a match.

 

It wasn’t. No more than any match is when Novak Djokovic is playing at this level, in so far as a match is a collective set of probabilities and potential outcomes. When he’s moving like that, returning serve like that, very little ends up in question.

 

I know I make him sound like some mix between an Excel sheet and the concept of gravity, but truthfully I do like Djokovic more than this. And good thing because, as we said at the start of this tournament, it might be a long year for those who don’t enjoy his acerbic, grinding style of play. One thing always sticks with me about him, and you could feel it again in Melbourne last night when it became clear what was about to happen: Novak Djokovic is never home.

 

He’s not home in Paris, whose crowd dramatically prefers Nadal and Federer and anyone else they can get an afternoon’s entertainment out of rooting for against him. Same goes for New York, which pulls for the Americans, obviously, but then also the warmer faces and louder personalities. When Roger or Rafa dominate, people love it. The shotmaking feels like a celebration or a magic show, and crowds throughout the world are willing to put up with lopsided scorelines if it means Federer flicks a few one-handers up the line. Novak knows this. He’s complained about it, sometimes endearingly and sometimes not. But it happened again last night, when it became clear that it would be his particularly crushing brand of tennis that was going to dictate terms—the crowd wanted a match. They always do, when it's him. The peaks of Novak’s career have always come in front of people who were wishing for something else.

 

Wimbledon 2014, that five-setter against Roger. It goes without saying whom the English crowd preferred. But Novak got him, on Roger's court, in front of Roger's crowd. Afterward outside the locker room, the camera caught a fraction of a moment then thought better of it: Novak and his wife Jelena embracing in the hallway, no entourage or media in sight that particular second. The match had lasted four hours, and despite him being the higher-ranked player, in that moment the better player, they had not wanted him. He had spent the afternoon alone. Many miles from home they lingered in that hug, and swayed and said nothing, faces buried. After a few seconds the camera cut away.

 

He’s won in Melbourne seven times now. He’s won everywhere, even if nowhere is his, and he'll almost certainly win more. He’s got fifteen majors, including the last three, and these questions of legacy and scale of achievement now must include him, whether anyone wants him there or not. He played brutal, efficient, unbeatable tennis in Australia, to a degree that's difficult to describe. He did what he was supposed to do, I guess one could write. Or: he won. There’s a special kind of genius that shuts out any modifiers.

 

 

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