Last, but not least, there’s always the man on the other side of the net, the challenger. This day, it was Frances Tiafoe, the umpteenth different opponent Djokovic has faced in his professional career, the umpteenth different problem to solve. ATP statisticians are still totting up the exact figure.
Tiafoe was a particular puzzle. The American son of Sierra Leonian refugees, he plays a slightly unorthodox game, with a forehand action that owes something to table tennis. Djokovic might not have seen anything like it.
At 23, he’s not a prodigy. Rather, he’s hovered around the middle of the top 100 for a few years. He reached the quarter-finals here in 2019, but nowhere else before or since. New management this year might mean new impetus; this contest seemed to say so.
It was more rugged for Djokovic than it looks on the 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3 scoreline. It took more than three-and-a-half hours. Later, Djokovic said he would always have it that way in the first week, but could say that from a safe remove by then.
This combination of dynamics made for an arrhythmic contest, antithetical to Djokovic’s metronomic ways. There were at least two false portents. Djokovic opened the match with three successive aces and won the first eight points, but battled eventually to win the first set.
Again in the third set, he won eight points in a row at the start, but was dragged to and through a tie-breaker before winning it. In between, Tiafoe spirited away the second set in a tie-breaker from a then listless Djokovic. Oddly for him, he was a wastrel with break points.
“He pushed me to the very limit,” Djokovic said. “The second and third sets were very close. At times, I was too passive. I wasn’t feeling my timing as well as I normally do. Credit to him. He put me in a difficult spot.”
Djokovic hit 26 aces for the match, a plethora for him, and Tiafoe 23, a personal best. But they also played 35 rallies of 10 shots or more and one that lasted 33. Needless to say, Djokovic shaded his opponent in that category, too. But it was a game of constant one-upmanship.
As a worthy encounter reached its fulcrum in the third set, creeping shadows became a complication when trying to watch the ball, but eventually a relief.
Only in the fourth set did each revert to type. Another time violation cost Tiafoe a first serve at a crucial moment, and there was an audible obscenity violation, too. It was a wonder the usher did not waggle a finger at him, too. It was a shame.
His serve was broken, and so was he. At last, it looked like a Djokovic match, taking a dependable course. Tiafoe’s tired double fault on match point ended it. Ultimately, the match showed why Djokovic is where he is, and perhaps why Tiafoe is where he is, too.
Djokovic was generous to Tiafoe, hugging him at the net, sympathising with his mini-meltdown at the match’s climax, and leading the crowd in an extra round of applause at the end. Djokovic gets a lot of practice at being gracious towards beaten opponents and his schtick is well honed.
The challenges continue to compound. Casting ahead, Djokovic saw three more big servers, including Taylor Fritz in the next round.
But he’s Novak Djokovic, and even in its new high-speed state, RLA remains his to lose.
“It feels like my living room,” he said.
It was just that this day, Tiafoe pranked him for a while by moving his armchair.
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.