By Sigurd Neubauer
Novak Djokovic, 35, trounced his opponents throughout the 2023 Australian Open, including during the final when he defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas, 24, 6–3, 7–6, 7–6.
Tied with Rafael Nadal, 36, for most grand slam titles – 22 – the Serb is on his way to become the winner of the most grand slam titles of all time.
“Djokovic is excellent at taking care of his body,” explains Vesa Ponkka, a veteran coach and President of the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC).
“Djokovic could easily win another two or three grand slams this year, including at the U.S. Open in August where he’s the favorite to win should pandemic era restrictions be lifted for foreigners,” Ponkka adds.
The Serb declined to take the Covid-19 vaccine, which prevented him from participating during the 2022 Australian Open and the 2022 U.S. Open, respectively. He was, of course, a favorite to win either of the two grand slams if he had participated.
But Djokovic continues to dominate. “It was fascinating to see how he was on a totally different level mentally compared to his younger generation competitors, especially during the second week of the tournament. This was particularly evident during his matches against Andrey Rublev, 25, and Tsitsipas, respectively,” the JTCC president observes.
“Even though Rublev is number five in the world, the Russian had very little chance. Neither Rublev nor Tsitsipas had minimal chance as he defeated them mentally. They might not have had enough belief that they are ready to defeat Djokovic in the best of five matches in a grand slam tournament.”
On why that is, Ponkka explains that each one of them made “ too many unforced errors” because they felt the need to rush, which led to the breakdown of their respective decision-making processes. “It was easy to see,” Ponkka says, then quips: “With the Australian Open behind us, it is as if nothing has changed,” a reference he’s making to the younger generation of players being unable to defeat Djokovic in a grand slam tournament.
Djokovic, along with Nadal and Roger Federer, 41, are the three greatest men’s tennis players of all time. The Serb has not been forced into retirement because of injury as Federer. Nadel’s tennis future appears uncertain because of his injuries.
Compared to five years ago, the Serb is “half a step slower,” but, “at the end, it didn’t make a difference,” Ponkka explains as it is “his mentality and psychology that enable him to dominate. It is really fascinating.”
Aryna Sabalenka, 24, won her first grand slam title. Ultimately, she was able to prevail “because she’s one of the hardest working players on the tour. She has the chance of becoming one of the next leaders within women’s tennis,” according to Ponkka.
The Belarusian has been a top five ranked player over the past few years but won “because she was able to overcome her nerves during the second week of the grand slam tournament.”
“Sabalenka was able to handle herself mentally and emotionally in a better manner; she has an excellent chance to win more grand slam tournaments,” he predicts.
The JTCC president also considers her to be a great athlete who doesn’t appear to be prone to injury. “She’s excellent at taking care of her body, is technically skilled, and is one of the hardest players on the WTA tour.”
Applying the old tennis saying to Sabalenka, “it’s all about mental strength and the rest is luck. The harder one works the luckier one gets,” Ponkka points out, adding: “She’s going to be winning a fair amount in the future.
A golden era for U.S. tennis
During the quarterfinals in Melbourne, three Americans participated; Sebastian Korda, 22, Tommy Paul, 25, and Ben Shelton, 20. “Their participation is a testimony to how well U.S. tennis is doing at the moment,” Ponkka explains.
Taylor Fritz, 25, and Francis Tiafoe, 24, are the highest ranked Americans but Shelton and Korda possess the potential to become top players in the future.
Ponkka predicts that Korda, who is the son of legendary Czech tennis player Petr Korda, “might be the most promising young player with Carlos Alcaraz, 20, in the world. It could be only a matter of time before Korda wins a grand slam title.”
On what’s next for Tiafoe, who is a JTCC graduate, Ponkka, who knows him intimately, describes the American as having “greatly improved his emotional control during the matches.” He points to Tiafoe’s success at the 2022 U.S. Open, where he ultimately lost to Carlos Alcaraz, 19, during the semifinal in what was a nailbiter of a match; “it could be only a matter of time before he reaches the final of a grand slam tournament.
Another American top talent is Tommy Paul, 25, who lost to Djokovic during the Australian Open’s semifinal.
“These young players are starting to believe in themselves,” Ponkka explains, before quipping: “This period we’re in reminds me of the 1990s when Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang, among others, dominated the game.”
Hopefully, this generation may be nearly as good as the 1990s one, he adds.
Even though Djokovic continues to dominate the game as witnessed during the Australian Open, coupled with the fact that he remains a favorite to win the 2023 U.S. Open should he be able to compete, Ponkka explains that he “wouldn’t be surprised if the tournament is won by an American” this year. The last time an American man won the U.S. Open was 20 years ago, in 2003. It was Andy Roddick.
“Now, there’s a chance. I hope Tiafoe wins. It is a very exciting time for U.S. tennis.”
By the summer, Tiafoe, the JTCC graduate, could be ranked top 10 in the world.
“He’s one of the younger players who has the ability to win a grand slam. Everyone at the JTCC is excited about this prospect as he’s truly a trail blazer.”