Jannik Sinner defeats Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open

Then the thing that never happened happened.

Novak Djokovic lost in the semifinals of the Australian Open on Friday to Jannik Sinner, the first time he has lost a semifinal or final at a tournament he has won a record 10 times — a perfect 20-0 in the tournament's most important matches.

Sinner, the 22-year-old Italian up-and-comer who beat Djokovic twice at the end of last year, awkwardly crushed Djokovic early and prevented Djokovic from making one of his trademark shots to beat the 24-time Grand Slam champion. 6-1, 6-2, 6-7(6), 6-3.

Djokovic could have gone quietly but he didn't, avoiding the end with a powerful backhand and a brilliant volley and saving a match point by pressing Sinner to send a forehand into the net. When he later halved the pack, he turned to the crowd with a smile and a firm fist as he strutted to the side of the pitch, chants of “Novak, Novak” raining down on him. Anyone who has watched Djokovic escape numerous near-death experiences, especially in Australia, would be foolish not to think that another strong comeback could be in the offing.

Not on this day. Not against Sinner, who not only did not allow Djokovic to break his serve once, he did not even give him a single chance. Sinner also broke Djokovic's serve five times, the decisive blow coming early in the fourth set, in a match as strange as Djokovic's backstroke. Sinner raced to a 40-0 lead, then accepted rare good fortune with a double fault and a forehand long to take a 3-1 lead. And then all he had to do was the same thing he'd been doing all day, and he did it.

With a perfect final forehand down the line, Sinner settled the ball, and Djokovic was heading home in defeat. Within seconds, he was carrying his bags on his shoulders, hands in the air and thumbs up to the crowd who treated him like one of their own.

(Martin Cape/AFP via Getty Images)

“I tried to keep pushing,” Sinner said. “I lost to him last year in the Wimbledon semi-finals. I learned a lot from that.”

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Roger Federer retires. Rafael Nadal is almost here. Djokovic's final challenge is to fend off the next generation, led by Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz, as best he can. It turns into the ultimate intergenerational spectacle, full of nerves, twists and subplots at every turn.

Sinner raced out of the starting gate like a novice ski champion. He did almost everything right in the first set, and was helped immeasurably by Djokovic, who made almost every mistake.

“I was kind of shocked by my level, you know, in a bad way,” Djokovic said after the match. There wasn't much I did right in the first two sets. I think this is one of the worst Grand Slam matches I've ever played. At least that's what I remember.”

He pushed Djokovic deep behind the baseline, then sent him on a run, knocking down balls that bounced and jumped outside the boundary lines, then shooting into the open court at those points when Djokovic was able to catch and retrieve the ball. .

He hit 65 percent of his first serves and won 80 percent of those points, denying Djokovic even the chance to do much damage. He chose the right moments to push forward, winning the point every time he hit the back of the net.

However, tennis requires two players to play, and Sinner's power has gotten a lot of support from Djokovic's inability to do even normal Djokovic things early on — stretch out points until his opponent's game collapses, or use his serve to pin Sinner at the back of the court, or He even hit his first serve with any level of consistency. His backhand is perhaps the most reliable and dangerous of all the backhands in tennis, sailing wide or long and sometimes both, time and time again.

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When the first set ended, a set Djokovic almost never played, his statistics told an ugly story — he had executed just 43 percent of his first serves and had won just 15 of the 43 points he and Sinner played.

The second group was more similar with some minor improvements but almost the same results. An early break from Sinner and a late break. Djokovic chases the balls, extends them and sends them into the middle of the net. Attempts to push forward ended with his head turning as he watched another passing shot. Fourteen unforced errors, scoring points 28-17.

Again, it takes two players in tennis, and it's not entirely clear how much one player's great play will affect the other. On Friday afternoon, on court, Djokovic ruled most of the time and had never lost a semifinal or final, as no one had beaten him in five years. The answer, as always, was twofold.

(David Gray/AFP via Getty Images)

Since Sinner came onto the tour and reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the French Open in 2020, there has been one word that smart people in tennis have used to describe Sinner — solid. In many ways, that's the ultimate compliment, what fellow players say about someone who always shows up and never beats himself.

“I just tried to play as relaxed as possible, but also have the right game plan in mind,” Sinner said. “I think it worked out really well today.”

Sinner was as composed as ever, giving Djokovic few opportunities to hit him in the jaw and choke him out as he has often done, against 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 had to knock them down, which he never did.

There's another word that gets thrown around the locker room and practice fields when players and their coaches talk about Sinner. He describes the feeling of his ball when it hits their racket – it's “heavy”.

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Combine a heavy ball with someone who makes almost no errors, especially on his serve, and playing on a 22-year-old set of legs that now move as well as anyone else, and it's going to take the best player ever. Planet and there are very few players on the planet who won't spend an afternoon playing. Sometimes you're shallow, slow and error-prone because your opponent makes you that way, even when you're Novak Djokovic.

Through it all, Djokovic looked expressionless. He hardly looked to his coach Goran Ivanisevic for suggestions. He didn't scream in his box because he wasn't given more support. He didn't break a racket over the net post. He did not pick a fight with any of Sinner's fans who were not shy about shouting support for their man, often in Italian, one of the many languages ​​Djokovic speaks fluently.

More often than not, these are the things Djokovic does against lower opponents when he can conserve energy while chasing the spark. Against Sinner on Friday, anyone could see from the first ball that he would need every ounce of energy in his reserves. And then some.

Djokovic said: “Throughout the tournament I did not play close to my best level. “I didn't really feel like myself on the court during this tournament. One could say that reaching the semi-finals is of course a great result, but I always expect the highest level from myself, and that was not supposed to happen today.

Whatever he had, whatever he did, it wasn't enough. This was the first time he had not reached a Grand Slam final since the 2022 French Open. By late afternoon at Melbourne Park, Djokovic's record in semifinals and finals at the Australian Open had fallen to 20-1.

(Photo: Danielle Puckett/Getty Images)

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