Michael Houston

Novak Djokovic called it "one of the most challenging tournaments of my life" in his post-match interview, as he cradled the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup, soon after defeating Greek third seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets in the men's singles Australian Open final.

The 35-year-old called it "the biggest victory" of his career, citing his family had been through a lot in the past four or five weeks, but did not disclose what personal issues made him so emotional when celebrating with his team after the match.

Speaking to Eurosport, he said he had been through the "best and worst" emotions during the tournament, with the Serbian making history on the night.

He became a 22-time Grand Slam champion - matching the men's singles record of Spanish long-time foe Rafael Nadal - and claimed his 10th title in Melbourne, all while returning to the top of the world rankings.

If he wasn't one of the best players in tennis history, his run to the trophy would have followed the tropes of a sports film. 

After beating world number 190 Enzo Couacaud of France in four sets, he admitted his recurring hamstring injury was still very bad, raising doubts over his fitness, with five matches still to play assuming he made the final.

Novak Djokovic won his 22nd Grand Slam title in Melbourne ©Getty Images
Novak Djokovic won his 22nd Grand Slam title in Melbourne ©Getty Images

Typical Djokovic, he would not drop a set for the rest of the tournament. 

After an uncomfortable third-round victory over Bulgarian 27th seed Grigor Dimitrov, he turned the heat up on his way to the final - smashing Australian 22nd seed Alex de Minaur and fifth seed Andrey Rublev in successive matches, dropping only 12 games against them.

Following a tight first set against American Tommy Paul in the final four, he ran out comfortable again 7-5, 6-1, 6-2; and although Tsitsipas was his greatest challenge, he still could not get the momentum in his favour, with the final ending 6-3, 7-6, 7-6.

The way he recovered from his injury, while dealing with the controversy related to his father's presence around pro-Russian flags in the latter stages, was remarkable. Yet, the 2023 Australian Open was the true sign of out with the old and in with the new.

While a new year did not produce a new champion and Djokovic looks set to rule the roost of men's tennis, his hamstring concerns showed his mortality. And mortality was the theme in the men's singles.

Rafael Nadal's injuries caught up with him in Australia ©Getty Images
Rafael Nadal's injuries caught up with him in Australia ©Getty Images

Top seed Nadal was humbled in the second round, losing in straight sets to unseeded American Mackenzie McDonald, partly due to a hip flexor injury which will see him out for at least six weeks.

Meanwhile, Britain's Andy Murray had one of the feel-good stories in Melbourne, winning two five-set matches with a metal hip, before succumbing in the third round to Spanish 28th seed Roberto Bautista Agut after more than 14 hours on the court. 

Reporters were encapsulated by his endurance and characterised it as an underdog story - and at this point, it is.

While Murray's woes have taken him close to retirement before, Nadal and Djokovic have never flirted with this idea.

The first of the Big Four to call time on their career was the oldest of the lot - the Swiss great Roger Federer, who played his last match at the Laver Cup alongside Nadal at the age of 41 in September 2022, after a torrid spell with knee injuries, bowing out with 20 Grand Slam titles.

By this point, Nadal and Djokovic surpassed his record, with the two trading blows to statistically be the greatest-ever over the four major tournaments. 

Swiss great Roger Federer called time on his career last year ©Getty Images
Swiss great Roger Federer called time on his career last year ©Getty Images

What was once regarded as a race to the top can now be seen as last-man standing between the two greats. Winning a Grand Slam is no longer a foregone conclusion between them, with a bunch of rising stars standing toe-to-toe with them. 

The French Open in May and June will be telling - if Nadal can successfully defend his title and lift the trophy for a 15th time, the battle for the most Grand Slams will look likely to continue. 

If the clay-court specialist cannot, that 23rd title may go to Djokovic first. Considering his dominant run to the final today, the new world number one has to be the favourite to reach the unprecedented number 23.

This is all hypothetical. Everybody has a plan until you go down with injury. While the 2022 US Open was viewed as the emergence of new talents - with Spanish teenager Carlos Alcaraz beating Norwegian Casper Ruud in the final - the 2023 Australian Open will be viewed as the tournament where our generational heroes collectively looked like mere mortals.

As the aches and pains threaten Djokovic and Nadal's futures, focus turns to their successors. 

Russian Daniil Medvedev has proven himself at this level before when he won the 2021 US Open, with Alcaraz establishing himself as the best of the 2000s-born players so far by winning the 2022 title at Flushing Meadows. 

Carlos Alcaraz is one of the most promising players of the new generation ©Getty Images
Carlos Alcaraz is one of the most promising players of the new generation ©Getty Images

Medvedev's compatriot Karen Khachanov had an exceptional run to the semi-finals in Melbourne as did Tommy Paul, in his mid-20s. 

Tsitsipas has made two finals at the age of 24, while 21-year-old Italian Jannik Sinner and Canadian 22-year Félix Auger-Aliassime have become staple contenders too.

An American contingent is coming through the ranks - with Paul, Ben Shelton, Sebastian Korda, JJ Wolf, Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe and Jenson Brooksby all under the age of 25. 

All while Jiří Lehečka of Czech Republic had a breakthrough run to the quarter-finals at the age of 21. This is all while omitting names like Holger Rune, Andrey Rublev and Alex de Minaur.

I may have just listed a couple-of-dozen names here - but it shows the stark contrast over the past 20 years. 

Between Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka, 69 of the 76 Grand Slams between 2004 and now have been won by these five players. Only 12 players have won a Grand Slam in this period. 

Between 1999 and 2003, the same number of players had won Grand Slams.

By 2024, the field will likely be wide open again. The 2023 Australian Open looked like the beginning of the end for what has been regarded as the golden generation of tennis, dominated by a handful of stars. 

Exciting talents are coming through and players that we have regarded as gods of tennis will soon be packing their racquet away for the last time. 

We have never seen anything like it and we may never see such a chokehold like this on the men's singles ever again.