Djokovic faced a two sets to one deficit, and break points in the first set, while struggling with an apparent illness. (AP: Lee Jin-man)
There is a moment in the documentary When We Were Kings about the Rumble in the Jungle where Muhammed Ali has taken all George Foreman has to give and is suddenly turning the tide.
Sitting ringside, George Plimpton turns to Norman Mailer and gasps: “The succubus has got him!”
Had the great American authors been watching Dominic Thiem gradually succumb to the enervating and sometimes mesmeric presence of the great Serbian, you can imagine they might think the Austrian had also been subjected to some kind of curse.
“By God, the Djokovic has got him!”
Djokovic’s eighth Australian Open final victory was not just rope-a-dope.
It did not just involve the dramatic but relatively routine shifts of power and momentum that occur in most great sporting events.
There was — and so often is — something almost unearthly, something unnatural about the way Djokovic drains the power of his opponents while simultaneously redoubling his own.
This time, Djokovic faced a two sets to one deficit, and break points in the first set, while struggling with an apparent illness.
Yet, in what seemed like an inkling, the Serbian was beating his chest and holding his arm aloft in triumph as Thiem packed his racquet bag and pondered what might have been.
Perhaps nerves played a part; the 26-year-old Thiem tightened noticeably from early in the fourth set when Djokovic was reborn.
This tends to happen when you are trying to beat a piece of tennis history to win your first grand slam title, particularly when you have landed some solid blows but failed to floor your opponent.
Djokovic argues with chair umpire Damien Dumusois during the men’s singles final. (AP: Lee Jin-man)
But where this final briefly looked like throwing up a momentous upset, instead it became a four-hour exploration of Djokovic’s vast talent, sometimes fragile psyche and, mostly, his incredible capacity to fight his way out of a corner.
Djokovic skeptics still out in force
With that came the wrath of the still surprisingly large contingent of Djokovic sceptics: those who arrived at the final as determined to cheer against the Serbian as for his underdog opponent.
For them, the illness that required medication during the third set will be the source of eye-rolling cynicism.
Similarly, the outburst toward the chair umpire who twice penalised Djokovic for slow play — a pat of the umpire’s foot and a mocking “You’ve done a good job making yourself famous” — will entrench some opinions about his temperament.
Djokovic’s irritation with the crowd as they got behind Thiem and his post-match chest beating will only harden the hearts of those who claim he is obsessed by a need to be universally adored like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
The rest of us will marvel at the way Djokovic wrested back the momentum and move to the question now posed after every grand slam — inevitably so, given the last 13 have been won by either Djokovic, Federer or Nadal and the big three have split 34 of the 41 major titles since 2010.
Has the third wheel become the lone wolf?
How does this latest achievement shape the still unfolding battle for dominance among the big three? And, dare we ask, has the third wheel become the lone wolf?
The numbers are starting to stack up: Djokovic on 17 major titles and in the overtaking lane, with Federer stalled on 20, and Nadal looking forward to joining him on 20 by winning a 13th French Open title in May.
But this argument has to be about more than numbers. It has to be about more than just accumulation, as astonishing as the records of these three phenomenal players are.
This is about seeing and believing because the careers of these three giants have played out almost simultaneously before our sometimes disbelieving eyes.
This isn’t Bradman and Steve Smith or Pele and Messi or even Laver and Federer (or should it be Nadal or Djokovic?) — the kind of confected rivalries that are played out virtually between athletes in different eras who used very different equipment or played in vastly contrasting conditions.
Federer versus Nadal versus Djokovic is a real-time rivalry in which our privileged tennis watching generation has infinitely more evidence than the Trump impeachment trial on which to make its judgement.
For Djokovic, however, making a case has meant overcoming the prejudicial initial assumption that Federer and Nadal were locked in a battle to decide who would be the greatest of the era while he and, for a time, Andy Murray, were merely spoilers.
But for an eighth time Djokovic showed that to challenge him on Rod Laver Arena you don’t just have to play well. You have to pay a price. You have to suffer. And, as Thiem found, even that might not be enough.
This inevitably casts Djokovic in the role of tormentor and his opponents as heroic underdogs. For all the pain they have inflicted on grass and clay respectively, Federer and Nadal have never been despised for their career-shattering dominance.
But Djokovic’s substantial place in this three-time rivalry has gone beyond the point where mere popularity should play any part.
As the grand slam title race tightens and thus become less meaningful as a decider, we are confronted with a gut feeling choice between Federer’s aesthetics, Nadal’s amazing stamina and Djokovic’s peerless defensive game.
The temptation to make this decision immediately after each superstar has padded their record with another victory at their most favoured grand slam venue should be avoided.
But watching Djokovic suck the life from the worthy Thiem on Rod Laver Arena, before Rod Laver, you were left with the unmistakable impression that you were witnessing greatness on and off the court.