MELBOURNE, Australia -- Along the walkway winding toward Rod Laver Arena, there is a stretch of bronze sculptures honoring Australian tennis greats, such as Roy Emerson, Margaret Court, John Newcombe and many others. One of them is of US Open champion Pat Rafter, but his image was obscured Sunday when someone cloaked the bust with a Serbian scarf, knit cap and flag.
It was somewhat fitting given that the beloved hero of that Balkan country is the man who also rules this Australian Open: Novak Djokovic. After he beat Andy Murray in straight sets in Sunday's final, dozens of fans with Serbian roots and insignias stood in the plaza near Laver Arena and cheered with pride, chanted Djokovic's name and danced as he sat directly above them during a TV interview.
"It was amazing. I honestly did not expect that. I did not know what was waiting," Djokovic said. "Many of these fans didn't have a ticket or a chance to watch the match in the stadium, so they stayed on the main square. They waited for me. I'm very grateful for their support. It's quite incredible. I don't take it for granted, obviously. I've had the fortune to win this trophy now six times, but I never experienced such support after the match."
Why wouldn't his Serbian fans show such support for their hero? As Serbian expat Aleksandar Zdrnja said, "He means a lot to Serbia. A lot. Because, with Serbia being such a small country compared to America, he represents Serbia in such a good way. It shows that a small country like Serbia, after war and difficult times, can produce a world champion.
"The good thing about Djokovic is, he's done so much to help Serbia. If he was running for president, everyone would vote for him."
While Djokovic is not running for Serbian president (yet), he is the undisputed king of tennis. And no one, absolutely no one, is close to dethroning him.
Djokovic won his record-tying sixth Australian Open by beating Murray 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 (3), the fourth time he has defeated the Great Britain native in as many finals here. The 6-foot-2 Serb has won four of the past five Grand Slams, losing only in the final of last year's French Open. He has won 11 majors overall, defeating Murray, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal in 10 of those.
Forget the Big Four. Djokovic is the Big One. And the distance between him and the other three grows ever wider after Sunday. He has already beaten all three this year and made each look ridiculous in the first set: He beat Nadal 6-1 at Doha in 30 minutes, Federer 6-1 in the semifinal here in 24 minutes and Murray 6-1 on Sunday in 30 minutes.
"It would be great if tennis was played in only one set," Djokovic said with a laugh.
Perhaps Murray would have preferred that Sunday, as well. While he recovered and started serving well after the first frame to give Djokovic competitive second and third sets, he still lost for the 11th time in their past 12 meetings. So it was not a pleasant night. Murray's wife is nearly due to deliver their first child and his father-in-law is back in England after collapsing in the stands here during a match and later being hospitalized. "I just want to get home," Murray told reporters following the match, before dashing to the airport to catch a 1 a.m. flight.
Murray and Djokovic have known each other since they were 11-year-olds on the junior circuit and, during the trophy ceremony, the world No. 1 graciously wished Andy and his wife a healthy and happy delivery: "I hope that you will experience a feeling like you haven't before. Because that's what happened to me."
Djokovic and his wife had their first child 15 months ago, and he says everything in his life has gone superbly since. It certainly has on the court. He won 11 titles in 2015 and has won two so far this year. "I feel like I'm at the point in my life where everything is working in harmony," he said. "I'll try to keep it that way."
Despite his phenomenal success, the king still has things to accomplish. He is six major titles behind Federer's record of 17, which is not out of sight considering Djokovic is only 28 years old. He also has never won the French Open, the only title denying him a career slam. But the way Djokovic is playing and improving, the way he is beating his top rivals, there is a reasonable chance he could complete the career slam this year, if not become the first man since Laver to win a Calendar Slam.
And Djokovic is determined to stay on top.
"I believe that all the guys that are out there fighting each week to get to No. 1 are very hungry to get to No. 1, and I know that," he said. "I can't allow myself to relax and enjoy. Of course, I want to enjoy, and I will, but it's not going to go more than a few days. ... It's kind of a mindset that one needs to have if one wants to stay up there, because I think you need to work double as hard when you're up there."
And as for running for president?
"No. I'm an athlete," Djokovic said. "I think I should stick with that."