The first time Novak Djokovic held three of the four grand slam titles, he was a picture of focus, determination and tension.
This time, after his swift and brutal thrashing of Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 to win a record seventh Australian Open trophy, he was different. And he was a terrifying sight.
Now holding the Wimbledon crown and the US and Australian Open trophies, he only needs another French Open title to complete a second non-calendar Grand Slam. That would put him in the same bracket as Rod Laver and Roy Emerson, the only men in history to have won all four major titles at least twice.
But last time Djokovic was in this sort of form and this position back in 2016, he had set his every thought and ambition on winning in Paris – he had come close before – and the pressure almost did for him.
This time, he knows how it is done, he knows how it feels and there is a scary calm about the world No 1. From rebuilding his career and his self-belief last year, he has begun the new season with that strutting confidence and flawless game that has already won him 15 major titles (five short of Roger Federer’s record) and, he suspects, will win him many more.
“I am aware that making history of the sport that I truly love is something special,” Djokovic said. “Of course, it motivates me. I do want to definitely focus myself on continuing to improve my game and maintaining the overall well-being that I have mental, physical, emotional, so I would be able to compete at such a high level for the years to come, and have a shot at eventually getting closer to Roger’s record.
“It’s still far.”
The statistics from yesterday made grim reading for Nadal, right. It had been the Spaniard who had looked to be the sharper as the tournament developed: he did not drop a set on his way to the final and he was playing with a new aggression. But when he ran into Djokovic, he could not even get a foothold in the match. He lost 13 of the first 14 points, he won only one point in the first three games and after seven games, he had not won a point on the Djokovic serve.
At the other end of the court, Djokovic made only nine unforced errors in the two hours and four minutes it took to get the job done. He hit 34 winners, he broke Nadal’s serve five times and faced only one break point (he saved it, of course).
This was Nadal’s first event since September when he had to pull out of the US Open semi-finals with a knee injury. Ankle surgery at the end of the season did not help matters and then, when he thought he was ready to return, he picked up a thigh injury and could not play until he got to Melbourne.
“It was unbelievable the way that he played, no doubt about that,” Nadal said. “But five months without competing, having that big challenge in front of me, I needed something else. That something else probably today, I don’t have it yet. That’s my feeling, to compete at this super high level.”
Nadal’s offensive game was in good shape but due to that lack of practice and competition, the defensive side was fragile. And when Djokovic launched his first attack in Nadal’s first service game, it left the former champion chasing shadows for the rest of the night.
“I made more mistakes because he pushed more,” Nadal said, simply. “But I have the confidence that I did a lot of things well this tournament. I have the confidence that I will reach this extra level of intensity in the future if I am able to practise well.”
That is as may be but Djokovic remains the man to beat. A year ago, the Serb left Melbourne uncertain about his future. His chronic elbow injury required surgery and he did not know how that would turn out. Did he really believe then that he could be back, holding the trophy and sitting at the top of the pecking order?
“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I always believe in myself,” he said. “I think that’s probably the biggest secret of my success, if I can say, or probably any other athlete, is self-belief, always digging deep in the moments when you’re facing adversity, digging those moments of complimenting yourself, visualising yourself as a winner, trying to be in a positive state of mind. It’s much easier said than done obviously.”
He made it look very easy yesterday. As for his confidence, that was growing with every moment as he held the trophy. It was the third time in his career that he had won three consecutive grand slam titles – and no man had ever done that before.
Djokovic was the Australian Open champion, he was the world No 1 and he was hungry for more. There is no scarier sight in tennis.