Uncharacteristic Off Day for Novak Djokovic

If beating Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros is sport’s toughest assignment, beating Novak Djokovic in Melbourne can’t be too far behind it. He hadn’t lost there in some 3,000 days (a COVID deportation playing some role in that), he’s won the tournament 10 times and he was still coming off a previous season of claiming three of the four majors and losing the final of the other one.

But that’s exactly what Jannik Sinner did Thursday night, beating Djokovic in four sets and clobbering him for the first two of those. Djoker was decidedly ropey in those sets, flat energy-wise and making sweet love to the net with far more of his shots than anyone was ever used to. Perhaps his extended first two matches and the bite Taylor Fritz took out of him were too much at age 36. Maybe it was just a bad day.

That shouldn’t take away from Sinner, who closed last season furiously with two wins over Djokovic, though in three-set matches. There is no cleaner striker of the ball than Sinner, and the sound it makes off his racket is akin to the way the ball sounded coming off Albert Pujols’s bat once upon a time: A menacing thud. His movement was equal to and often better than Djokovic’s, the best mover the game has seen. And his serve is an absolute elephant gun and so well-placed in the match, that Djokovic, the greatest returner of all-time, never even had a break point.

Sinner, at 22, looks like he has combined all the tools with a belief and determination to join Carlos Alcaraz as those ready to carry the torch whenever Djokovic is ready to cede it. He struck his first blow Thursday in Australia.