For a moment Novak Djokovic showed a chink in his Australian armour; a weakness not seen Down Under for more than four years.
Staring down a championship point and the prospect of his 33-match Australian winning streak coming to an end, the Serbian superstar did it again. He rose from the canvas.
Sebastian Korda was more than gallant – he was excellent. But in the Adelaide International final on Sunday Djokovic was better, prevailing 6-7(8-6) 7-6(7-3) 6-4 in a see-sawing three hour epic at Memorial Drive to clinch his 92nd ATP title.
Part one of the Serbian’s Aussie revenge tour has been run and won, but not without an almighty scare.
Almost a forgotten man on the opposite side of the draw, Korda had quietly won his way past the likes of Andy Murray, Roberto Bautista Agut and Jannik Sinner to play for just his second ATP title.
On the other side of the net was a man eyeing up his 92nd. The deck was stacked against the young American, but he didn’t care.
It took seven set points for the world No. 33 to finally break through in the opener. No other player had managed to take a set off of the Serbian until Korda won the opening tiebreak of the final, which got right under the skin of Djokovic.
After going behind he turned to his team box and ordered two of them – one his brother Marko – to leave the court.
All week Djokovic had looked calm and composed. A quasi-home crowd flush with Serbian fans put wind in his sails, but Korda had thrown him.
However, few players in the history of tennis have played the big points better than Djokovic, and he showed all of his more than 1000 tour wins’ worth of experience in the second set.
In the space of 10 minutes he went from facing championship point to winning the set tiebreak at a canter.
At the final turn the momentum was with the 21-time grand slam champion, but Korda refused to go away.
It took the pressure of serving to stay in the match, down 5-4 against arguably the greatest player of all time, for the young American to falter.
Serving at 40-15, the moment got to him. Djokovic drew level, then ahead, and needed just one look at championship point to keep his incredible Australian winning record intact. It was the great escape, and he knew it.
“I would probably say you were closer to victory today than I was,” Djokovic said of Korda after the match.
“It was decided in one or two shots, one or two points. Tough luck today but the future is bright for you – you are an amazing player, well done.”
Unsure what reception he would receive on his return to Australia, Djokovic was glowing in his praise for the Adelaide crowd.
“It’s been an amazing week and you guys made it even more special; for me to be standing here is a gift, definitely,” he said.
“I gave it all today and throughout the week in order to be able to get my hands on the trophy and the support that I’ve been getting in the last 10 days was something that I don’t think I’ve experienced too many times in my life, so thank you everyone.
“It definitely felt like playing at home that’s for sure and you guys made me feel very welcome. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Djokovic will leave Adelaide for Melbourne as the pre-emptive favourite to make it 10 Australian Open crowns and 22 major titles overall, which would equal Rafael Nadal’s record mark.
With no Carlos Alcaraz at Melbourne Park, Djokovic could leave Australia in February restored as world No. 1 if he does go on to win the year’s first grand slam.
It would be an incredible storyline given the events that played out 12 months earlier, when he was deported from Australia.
But Korda showed he is not unbeatable, and that makes things very interesting as we turn our attention to Melbourne Park.
Aus Open on notice as dark horse betters Barty
Aryna Sabalenka’s rivals can start panicking now, because the Belarusian isn’t.
The world No. 5 ended a near-two year WTA title drought by easing past Czech qualifier Linda Noskova 6-3 7-6 to win the WTA 500 Adelaide International final on Sunday.
Her 11th career title punctuated a remarkable turnaround from 12 months ago, when she was ousted in the Adelaide opening round in back-to-back weeks.
Gone are the serving yips that cruelled her Australian summer last year; returned are the weaponized 190km/h serve and sizzling ground strokes that made her a mooted grand slam winner of the future. And the future, finally, could be now.
“I don’t want this s— to happen again,” laughed Sabalenka of the infamous serving woes.
“Oh my God, it was the worst feeling. (I) don’t even want to think about that feeling.
“In the beginning, in the first match, on the second serve I thought, ‘Let’s see how it’s going to be this year’ … I think I served it in. I was like, ‘Okay, it’s not going to happen again’. I felt so much relief after that.”
Twelve months ago Ash Barty dropped just one set in Adelaide, going on to win the tournament before rolling into Melbourne Park and leaving a few weeks later as Australian Open champion.
This week Sabalenka went one-better, breezing through the Adelaide International without dropping a set.
Next step, Melbourne.
Defeating an unseeded qualifier in straight sets normally wouldn’t heighten grand slam title aspirations. But Sabalenka’s victory over Noskova was impressive for many reasons.
First was her opponent – the 18-year-old qualifier who entered the tournament ranked outside the top 100 but will soon rise to top 60 after a giant-killing run this week.
Noskova survived a match point in qualifying before going on to knock the world No. 26, No. 8 and No. 2 out of the tournament en-route to Sunday’s final.
But Sabalenka was on a different level.
She smashed a ridiculous 44 winners and won 29 of 31 points once her first serve was in play. Put simply, the pace and power of Sabalenka was too much.
It looms as the Belarusian’s major point of difference as she now turns her attention to Melbourne, where she will be one of the favourites within a wide-open field.
Going against Sabalenka is his grand slam history. Twice she has made the fourth round at Melbourne Park, including last year, but never beyond that.
Her best showing at a grand slam is as a Wimbledon and US Open semi-final – she has yet to make a major final despite at one point being ranked No. 2 in the world.
“I think all of us know that it’s WTA tennis: you never know what’s going to happen,” Sabalenka said.
“I wish we could … predict something, but unfortunately this is now how it works.
Novak destined for Aus Open title after dispatching main rival
Who can stop Novak Djokovic?
In Australia at least, it’s beginning to look like nobody.
The Serbian superstar appears destined to romp to a 10th Australian Open title in a few weeks’ time, if his scintillating 6-3 6-4 display against the man purported to be his main rival is anything to go by.
Daniil Medvedev entered Saturday night’s Adelaide International semi-final in stellar form. He had not dropped a set all tournament and breezed past top-30 opponents to set up a rematch of the 2021 Australian Open final.
The Russian had seemingly found the kind of form that installed him as world No. 1 soon after last year’s Australian Open; the robotic Medvedev with clinical precision was priming himself to defeat Djokovic for the first time since the 2021 US Open final.
But Djokovic was simply on another level.
Not even a left hamstring scare could keep the 21-time grand slam winner from rolling past Medvedev in just over an hour and a half at Memorial Drive.
Djokovic sent shockwaves through world tennis when he left the court leading 5-2 in the opening set to receive treatment on his hamstring after pulling up sore while stretching for a return.
The 35-year-old returned to the court minutes later with his hamstring bandaged but appeared unperturbed.
If the hamstring was troubling him, Djokovic didn’t let it affect his game.
Even at his most frustrated, when Medvedev sat on the cusp of breaking back in the second and Djokovic shouted expletives at the chair umpire, the Serbian refused to falter.
If not Medvedev, then who?
It won’t be world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz, who withdrew from the Australian Open on Saturday.
Perhaps it can be Sebastian Korda; the American waiting for Djokovic in the Adelaide final on Sunday. We wait to see.
But on this form, on an Australian winning run stretching now to 33-straight matches, it would be a brave man to bet against Djokovic. In Adelaide, or Melbourne.
Sabalenka’s rapid transformation from serving capitulation
Twelve months ago, Adelaide was the scene of Aryna Sabalenka’s serving capitulation.
This year it could be the platform that boosts the Belarusian to a long-awaited grand slam title.
The world No. 5 has not dropped a set en-route to the Adelaide International final, underlining her Australian Open credentials within a wide open field that no longer features 2022 champion, Ash Barty.
It’s an incredible turnaround from this time last year, when Sabalenka lost in the opening round over consecutive weeks in Adelaide.
Her serve was the talk of world tennis – more specifically, where exactly it went.
One of the most powerful strikers of the ball on the WTA tour, Sabalenka’s serve has long been one of her big weapons but in the summer of 2022 it abandoned her.
She served 18 double faults in her Week 1 loss in Adelaide and 21 the following week.
The wobbles continued into Melbourne, where Sabalenka defied her serving struggles to reach the fourth round, before falling to Kaia Kanepi in three sets. But it was a major dent to her confidence.
Heralded as a future grand slam winner from early in her career, Sabalenka conceded she struggled at times matching those expectations, particularly those she put on herself.
It’s what has made this week’s run to the Adelaide International final so impressive, given just how calm she has been on-court.
“Before, I was really crazy about everything,” Sabalenka said following her 6-3 6-2 win over Irina-Camelia Begu on Saturday.
“I had a lot of expectations – right now I’m a little bit older and I think I understand (that) nothing can guarantee you winning a tournament.
“It helps me to not have all these expectations. That’s probably why I’m able to stay calm on court and just work through whatever.”
“I’m trying to work on it, especially this week, if I can stay really calm on court no matter what; just don’t get super crazy about winning and just do your thing,” she added.
“I think this is key for me, especially in the semifinals, quarterfinals, finals … this week I was trying to work on it and I think I’m doing really well.”
With the magic of her monster serve returned to her, Sabalenka looms as one of the favourites to make a deep run at the Australian Open later this month.
Her best-ever showing at Melbourne Park consecutive fourth-round appearances in 2021 and 2022.
She has never been beyond the semi-final stage of a grand slam.
But the 24 year old is at peace with the uncontrollable, she says.
“You never know. You can think your preparation is perfect and you’re ready to go and then you lose in the first round.
“And sometimes you think, ‘I’m not ready to play a grand slam’ and you reach the semi-finals, so you never know. I just try to control things I can control.”
Sabalenka said the change in perspective came after last year’s serving yips in Australia. It made her re-evaluate her game beyond the serve.
“I had to understand that even without my serve I still have something to play with – it’s given me a little bit of belief that no matter what’s (happening) on-court I can come back,” she said.
“Especially when things are working for me, like my serve, it’s easier to do so. I think last year helped me a lot to understand that my serve is not the only weapon I have and it’s why right now I’m much more calm on court and I understand that nothing can give you this guarantee (of success).”
The No. 2 seed will face 18-year-old qualifier Linda Noskova in Sunday’s final.
Noskova became the youngest player since Caroline Wozniacki in 2008 to make a WTA 500 or higher final after knocking out world No. 2 Ons Jabeur 6-3 1-6 6-3 in Saturday night’s semi-final.
The Czech sensation started the week outside the WTA top 100 but when the rankings are updated on Monday, will sit on the cusp of the top 50 with a finals loss or inside if she gets past Sabalenka.
Regardless, it is an incredible series of events for the teenager, who faced match point in her very first qualifying match of the tournament a week ago.
Draw twist sees Aussie stars clash in first round
The unluck of the draw has pit Thanasi Kokkinakis and Alexei Popyrin against each other in the opening round of the Adelaide International 2 beginning next week.
Australia’s two top performers in Week 1 will have to do battle first-up at Memorial Drive on Monday, with the winner’s carrot a second round match-up against No. 1 seed Andrey Rublev.
It’s one of the worst possible draws for Kokkinakis, who is defending his maiden ATP title and 250 rankings points earned last year when he made a thrilling run through the draw to defeat Frenchman Arthur Rinderknech in the final.
The South Australian was knocked out of Week 1 by Jannik Sinner in the third round and the loss pushed him outside of the ATP top 100.
Kokkinakis faces a further rankings freefall if he does not make a deep run through the Week 2 tournament and a first-up meeting with fellow Aussie Popyrin, followed by world No. 8 Rublev, is not what the 26 year old would have wanted to see.
Popyrin was the best-performed Aussie in Week 1, shocking No. 2 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime in the opening round and progressing through to the quarterfinals where he took Yoshihito Nishioka to three grueling sets.
For the neutral the all-Aussie opening round clash will be an intriguing battle, with Jason Kubler also drawn in the top-half of the Week 2 draw.
Surprisingly, Kokkinakis and Popyrin have never played each other on tour.
If world No. 113 Popyrin defeats Kokkinakis, he will leapfrog his countryman in the world rankings.
Kokkinakis dropped 17 spots to No. 110 after failing to reach the semi-final stage in Week 1.
But the 2022 Australian Open doubles champion said earlier this week he knew the rankings pressure that was awaiting him in Adelaide and was confident he could make the points back up later in the year.
“I was aware coming into the summer my ranking could take a hit. It might not look good on the number next to my name, but I know where my game is at and I know what I’m capable of,” he said.
“I peaked very early last year. I felt like I struggled to maintain that energy and focus throughout the whole season and that’s one of my goals coming into this year.”
Djoker v Daniil: Heavyweights collide in Adelaide semis
Everything else was simply an appetizer to this, the main event.
Novak Djokovic versus Daniil Medvedev. A repeat of the 2021 Australian Open and US Open finals and 13th encounter between the two great rivals of men’s tennis.
Djokovic, as he does with just about every player on tour, leads the head-to-head 8-4.
It could and perhaps should be a final, however the pair will lock horns at Memorial Drive on Saturday night for a place in Sunday’s final, against the winner of Sebastian Korda and Yoshihito Nishioka.
The respect is mutual. The desire to get one over the other is absolute. For Australian Open favourite Djokovic, who is unbeaten in Australia in more than 30 matches, it is the perfect precursor to the opening grand slam of the year.
“For the last four, five years he’s been one of the best players in the world,” Djokovic said of Medvedev.
“(A) former (world) No. 1, a grand slam champion – he’s just mentally so tough in the big moments.
“Maybe it was one or two matches we played out of 12 in total where it went kind of straightforward. Most of the other matches were really close, so that’s what I expect (on Saturday) as well.
“I look forward to it. It’s going to be a great semifinals, for sure.
“But at the same time also I think (it will be the) biggest test so far for both me and him. I think this is what we want coming into Melbourne and the Australian Open.”
Djokovic has won the past four matches between the pair; Medvedev’s most recent win over the 21-time grand slam champion coming in the 2021 US Open final.
The Russian knows better than anyone just how difficult it is to defeat Djokovic, particularly in Australia.
“In Australia we (have) played already three times … but I lost all of them. This is a challenge to play Novak in Australia,” Medvedev said.
“Maybe it can be easier in Adelaide than Melbourne, you never know, but it’s a challenge and it’s a great test before the Australian Open to play one of the best ones and probably the best player ever in terms of Australian tennis.”
But before the two former world No. 1s do battle on centre court later tonight, the Adelaide International will serve up a massive day of finals action.
It begins at 12pm local time when Aussie Storm Hunter partners Katerina Siniakova in the doubles final on centre court.
Giant killer Irina-Camelia Begu will look to continue her run when she faces No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka in the first women’s singles semi-final from 2pm.
Begu already has No. 7 seed Jelena Ostapenko and No. 4 seed Veronika Kudermetova on her list of Adelaide International scalps, while Sabalenka is yet to drop a set at Memorial Drive this week.
From 4pm is the almost forgotten men’s singles semi-final between Sebastian Korda and Yoshihito Nishioka.
With all eyes on the Djokovic-Medvedev showdown, the battle between unseeded young guns for a place in Sunday’s final will be must-watch television.
Shock Czech qualifier Linda Noskova will take aim at yet another big name when she meets world No. 2 Ons Jabeur in the second women’s singles semi-final from 6.30pm.
Noskova played an enthralling near-three hour epic against Victoria Azarenka in Friday’s quarterfinal and the young gun, who began her Adelaide International run with a win over No. 3 seed Daria Kastakina, has the tools to go all the way.
And then of course it’s the big one. From 8.30pm local time, it’s a repeat of the 2021 Australian Open and US Open finals when Djokovic and Medvedev meet for the third time in four months for a place in Sunday’s men’s singles final.
From 12pm WTA 500 Doubles Final:
Storm Hunter (AUS), Katerina Siniakova (CZE)  v Asia Muhammad (USA), Taylor Townsend (USA) 
Not before 2pm – WTA 500 Semi-Final:
Irina-Camelia Begu (ROU) v Aryna Sabalenka 
Not before 4pm -ATP 250 Semi-Final:
Sebastian Korda (USA) v Yoshihito Nishioka (JPN)
Not before 6.30pm WTA 500 Semi-Final:
Ons Jabeur (TUN)  v Linda Noskova (CZE) [Q]
Not before 8.30pm – ATP 250 Semi-Final:
Novak Djokovic (SRB)  v Daniil Medvedev 
Originally published as Adelaide International: Novak Djokovic pushed to limit in title triumph, Aryna Sabalenka takes out women’s title