Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev begin the mind games ahead of Australian Open final


World no.1 Novak Djokovic will face world no.4 Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open men’s singles final – Getty Images /Getty Images AsiaPac

And so to the men’s final: the closing act of what has been a bizarre yet memorable Australian Open, afflicted by challenges that would have defeated a less resourceful tournament director than Craig Tiley.

With Rod Laver Arena expected to host only half its usual capacity – meaning an attendance of around 7,500 – the organisers will be hoping for a quality set-piece to ease the pain of their $100m estimated losses.

Despite all last month’s bellyaching about quarantine arrangements and preferential treatment for the stars, at least no-one can say that the winner will deserve an asterisk by their name.

Pre-tournament favourite Naomi Osaka has already won the women’s title. Now, today’s match will pit defending champion Novak Djokovic against the tour’s form player in Daniil Medvedev – who has won 20 straight matches including 12 against top-ten opposition.

These are the two best players in the world this year, by some distance. No wonder the Eurosport pundit Alex Corretja has made the arresting – if slightly tasteless – prediction that “They’re going to kill each other!”

Yes, if Tennis Australia are going to get some bang for their 100m bucks, we have arrived at the most promising match-up. With any luck, the final will emulate the drama of last year’s showpiece, in which Djokovic fought back from the brink to overcome Dominic Thiem in five sets.

Medvedev is a rare example of a man who can beat Djokovic at his own game. He has scored three victories over the world No1 since the start of 2019 – a tally equalled only by Thiem – and he does it with similarly flawless court coverage and a backhand capable of turning defence into attack. The main difference is that he is four inches taller.

Daniil Medvedev of Russia reacts during his Men’s singles semi final match against Stefanos Tsitsipas – DAVE HUNT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock /Shutterstock

Medvedev is also refreshingly unafraid to wind people up, as he showed by baiting the fans at the 2019 US Open. “I want all of you to know when you sleep tonight, I won because of you,” he told hecklers who had booed him for snatching a towel from a ball boy.

One sometimes wonders whether Djokovic – himself not averse to cocking a hand behind his ear when faced with a hostile crowd – would like to be more provocative in this manner, but feels the need to police himself instead, because of the saintly images espoused by Federer and Nadal.

In any case, the build-up to this final has prompted posturing from both sides. After cruising past Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets on Friday, Medvedev made the cheeky suggestion that Djokovic’s historic Melbourne supremacy could work against him.

“He’s never lost in eight times in the final here,” said Medvedev. “It’s him who has all the pressure. Getting to [catch up with] Roger, Rafa, in the grand slams. He has, for sure, more experience, but more things to lose than me.”

Is this true? Having recovered from the abdominal strain he sustained in the third round, Djokovic may also feel that he is playing with house money. This always dangerous, because it eases the pressure in the racket arm.

Any ordinary mortal would have retired immediately after pinging his right oblique against Taylor Fritz. And even though Djokovic somehow edged through that one in five sets, his forehand was still well short of its usual potency in his next match against Milos Raonic.

Novak Djokovic doubles over in pain after suffering an oblique injury while playing against Taylor Fritz – WILLIAM WEST /AFP

But it didn’t matter. Djokovic is so superior on almost every aspect that he can afford a minor handicap. His saviour this fortnight has been a career-best showing on serve. He has already sent down 100 aces, 14 more than any other player, and 24 more than he has ever managed at a slam before.

Continuous improvement is Djokovic’s watchword. And continuous improvement is also the best phrase to describe his fitness level this week. By the time he crushed Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev in Thursday’s semi-final, he was able to say that “This is the best I’ve felt in the entire tournament. I could swing through the ball. No pain.”

Are there some mind games going on here? Djokovic is still wearing tape to support the lower-right side of his abdomen, and perhaps Medvedev has the ability to push him so far that something gives. In the build-up, though, he was projecting absolute confidence from every pore.

“There has been a lot of talk about the new generations coming and taking over from the three of us,” Djokovic told Eurosport commentator Mats Wilander, “but realistically that isn’t happening still. With my respect to all the other guys, they still have a lot of work to do. I’m not going to stand here and hand it over to them. I am going to make them work their a— off for it.”

Because of the closed-door policy enforced for two of his matches, Djokovic was not always to draw on the vociferous support of Melbourne’s Serbian community. He didn’t seem to mind, though the event sagged badly in the middle as a result.

Now, as Tiley tots up the funds invested in two weeks of quarantine for almost 1300 players and staff – as well as the extra financial hit of that five-day “circuit-breaker” lockdown – he might wonder whether the whole project has been worth it.

But at least the worst-case scenario – in which a breach of tournament bio-security causes a serious Covid outbreak in the Melbourne community – has been avoided thus far. Now it is up to Djokovic and Medvedev – tennis’s two masters of attrition – to send us off with a conclusion worthy of the cost.