You must be Djoking

Image: Nine Wide World of Sports

Steel yourself for the bad puns on tomorrow’s front pages after the Novak Djokovic – Alex DeMinaur match-up in Melbourne tonight. Djokers will exorcise Demins, will take the Djoker from the pack, will quench the Demins fire. It’s appropriate one of the most anticipated matches of the Australian Open thus far is a pairing that two years ago would barely have raised a pulse.

This must be the weirdest Australian Open on record. Not to suggest it hasn’t been interesting.

The defending champion and world number two Rafael Nadal was knocked out by an unseeded player in round two as the media bayed for his retirement on a contract written in blood. Melbourne’s infamous weather suspended play twice, first too hot and then too wet, dragging multiple matches over multiple days. Dunlop has gone to ground, refusing to answer accusations from player after player their tennis balls are flat.

The world men’s number one and Australia’s top-seed men’s player withdrew within days of the beginning of the tournament. Andy Murray and Thanasi Kokkinakis, a pair happily written off by all as too old and too not Nick Kyrgios, played the match of the tournament, at 4am.

There’s been a Netflix curse. Or some form of curse obliterating top-seed celebrities to d-listers from the tennis equivalent of the RKO backlot. Per this morning’s Australian (yesterday’s, there are also several people in attendance being watched, under suspicion of past match-fixing, bribery and drug cheating.

The offices of Tennis Australia must have been a frenetic place these past seven days. In the year AO insisted it could attract 900,000 punters through its turnstiles, the drama has outshone the draw at every turn. Tennis’ highest-rated social media channels have found themselves following low-ranked players, cannon fodder converted to stars by virtue of the madhouse that daily has been Melbourne’s Olympic Park.

Even returning champion Djokovic, hell-bent on his tenth title, has not been immune. In Alex DeMinaur he faces his toughest test tonight in the round of eight since play began, and this from a player he would have annihilated in straight sets two years ago.

What a difference a vaccine makes.

His usual competition long gone, Djokovic now faces a potential three rounds of kids. They may not be his strategic equal, but each of them can run him (and his potentially fake injured hamstring?) around the court enough to put his attendance in the inevitably bizarre final into a state of jeopardy no one saw coming.

Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas and Russia’s Karen Kachanov are now the most obvious contenders to face off against an undefeated Djokovic in the finals. Neither is new to the Melbourne crowd, but had you called them frontrunners eight days ago, you would have been met with skeptical glances.

Very little practical change will result from this year’s Australian Open. But the certainty of the celebrity era of tennis is definitely over. No doubt the managers of Roland Garros are already scrambling to prepare.