Almost inexpressibly lush and beautiful, Melbourne's Botanical Gardens are situated directly across the Yarra River from the tennis facility. For the past three weeks, some visitors, tourists and lovers ambling down the paths got a surprise. If they arrived on the right morning, they could fix their gaze on a 6-2 Serb with bristle-brush hair, stretching, jogging lightly and sometimes simply meditating. Novak Djokovic figured that as long as he needed to loosen up before defending his Australian Open title for a second time, he might as well do it in the most pleasant setting imaginable.
"You know," he said, "I want to be at one with nature."
He was making a joke. But he wasn't. This is Djokovic's nature. The ambitious arriviste who annoyed Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the kid who seldom did anything without a side-order of drama and exaggerated antics? No more. Djokovic has become the most serene man in tennis. He makes order out of chaos. He simplifies the complex. He controls the volume.
In Sunday's Australian Open final against Andy Murray, Djokovic played almost as though it was a foregone conclusion that he would win. He dropped the first set and didn't panic or wilt. "Mentally lighter," as he put it, he calmly pressed on, imposing his will on both the opponent and the match and prevailed, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-2.
"I needed to be the one who dictated play, and I'm glad I played my best." he said nonchalantly. "I knew that it's going to be physically very demanding, a lot of long rallies, so I needed to hang in there. I've done that."
Djokovic is like the straight-A student who does well in everything and is weak in no subject. (He is the best returner in tennis. His groundstrokes are unimpeachable. He moves with speed and grace. Precision? Check. Power? Check.) He operates with the self-assured knowledge that he will ace every test. It's just a question of how. Sometimes he'll be pushed -- as he was in fourth round, when he had to rally to beat Stan Wawrinka in what was the best match of the tournament. Sometimes he'll do it without being challenged, as was the case when he thrashed No. 4 David Ferrer in the semis. Sometimes, he'll simply do what's necessary, and answer all questions comprehensively, as was the case Sunday.
All the while, he's retained his convivial personality. When he's not playing -- or communing with nature in botanical gardens -- Djokovic is tennis' answer to the Vegas floorwalker. Everyone gets a wink or a fist bump and backslap. He drops a Mandarin phrase when he passes Chinese players; he asks to see the tattoos of security guards. He handed out chocolate to all the reporters at the press conference. ("I see everyone is not on a sugar-free diet.").
On Thursday night, Djokovic beat Ferrer in roughly the amount of time it will take you to read this sentence. He reappeared on the court dressed as a paramedic and administered faux CPR to Henri Leconte during the exhibition event.
It was a good yuck and went semi-viral (bacterial?). But it also told you a lot about Djokovic's level of ease these days. He's one match from winning a major title and he goes vaudeville? That's a man with self-belief.
Djokovic's aura presents a striking contrast with Murray's recent persona. Under the tutelage of the ultimate corner man, Ivan Lendl, Murray has become combative. It's not nasty; it's all with the bounds of fair play; and the results speak for themselves. But Murray is no longer a counterpuncher -- in any sense of the word. He now has an edge. He practiced this week wearing a T-shirt reading, "Prepare. Attack. Destroy." During his semifinal against Roger Federer, he exchanged sneers with the Great One, goading Federer into dropping some f-bombs. Then, he nearly decapitated Federer with a short ball. Even Murray's vocabulary is filled with confrontational, martial terms likes "punishment," surviving" and "body blows." Before the final against Djokovic, he expressed hope for a "painful match."
Well, that Murray got. But it was mostly at his own expense. After winning the first set in a tiebreaker and holding three breaks early in the second set, Murray had a chance to seize full control. But Djokovic -- the poise, again -- absorbed the blows and inflicted a few of his own. Djokovic doesn't play highlight-reel tennis; he won't often dazzle you with his shotmaking. But he unleashes an underrated serve, frustrates with his defense, and runs the opponent from corner to corner. By the end of the set, Murray was gripping his lower back and hamstring, grimacing like a fighter tagged by a punch to the solar plexus, and called the trainer to treat blisters on his feet.
By the third set, Djokovic unleashed the haymakers, carving up Murray with depth and defense. After scoring a few breaks of serve -- something neither player had done for the first 31 games -- he had demoralized Murray and drained him of force. The fourth set was a formality.
And to think, Andre Agassi was termed the Zen Master. Here's Djokovic after the match: "I tried to use that necessary experience in the past to implement that in my game, in my mental approach and mindset before this final. I didn't expect an easy match. You never get the Grand Slam trophy in an easy way. You have to earn it."
Like all high-stakes men's matches these days, tonight's result was significant for all sorts of reasons. Djokovic becomes the first player in the Open Era to win three straight Australian Opens. His Grand Slam haul is now six, and he is slowly creeping up the ladder. He exacted revenge on Murray, who had beaten him in the previous Grand Slam final at the U.S. Open. He solidified his No. 1 ranking.
With Federer 1-for-12 in Slams over the last three years and Rafael Nadal slowed his knee issues ... well ... in terms that Murray -- and his aide-de-camp -- would appreciate, Djokovic may not be the ATP's undisputed champion. But right now, he clearly holds the belt.