The Australian Open has made one big and one small surface change since 1987. In 1988, the Australian Open left grass behind and debuted a highly rubberized hard court called Rebound Ace. This type of hard court was used from 1988-2007 but its tendency to “grab” the soles of players’ shoes and ruin ankles on hot days led to the installation of a hardcourt with an acrylic mixture that didn’t ruin ankles called Plexicushion making its debut in 2008.
Sliding would not be as advisable on the Australian Open’s older Rebound Ace surface
2008 also saw Novak Djokovic win his first of 7 (and counting) Australian Opens. No man or woman has owned Plexicushion like Djokovic. He has won 7 of 12 Australian Opens held on this surface prior to 2020. Federer’s 6 Australian Open crowns are split evenly between Rebound Ace and Plexicushion. All four of Andre Agassi’s Australian Open titles came on Rebound Ace. Mats Wilander won two Australian Open titles on grass and took the 1988 Australian crown on Rebound Ace. Grass or variety of hard courts aside, Novak Djokovic is the greatest male Australian Open champion and is three sets from adding to his lead.
The surface rewards Djokovic’s greatest gifts. It is a bit slower than the Decoturf II (I’ve always wondered what Decoturf I was) hard courts used in New York since 1978 and on the rest of the North American hard court circuit.* Djokovic has the best return of serve in tennis so a slightly slower surface gives him a little more time to redirect and/or diffuse his opponents’ serves. Djokovic’s two-hander is the best in tennis as well and can feast on high bounces. Djokovic’s speed and flexibility are not threatened by Plexicushion but may have led to disastrous ankle issues on the unsafe for sliding Rebound Ace. It is incrementally harder to end a point vs. Djokovic on this hard court than other hard courts on tour.
With free points few and far between, even great players need to be ready to run if they wish to challenge Djokovic in Melbourne
If Rafa rules terre-battue while Federer and Sampras piled up a combined 15 Wimbledon titles between 1993-2017, Novak Djokovic has his own domain on the tennis tour in Melbourne, Australia. Novak is 2-0 vs. Nadal in Australian Open finals, is 4-1 vs. Federer in Australia with his lone loss coming in 2007 on Rebound Ace, and is 5-0 vs. Andy Murray at the Australian Open as well. A gaudy 11-1 record vs. his biggest rivals at his best venue makes Novak Djokovic the king of Rod Laver Arena.
Djokovic will not be facing any of those three career-rivals in the 2020 Australian Open final, but I doubt he will mind. He will be very much at home as he welcomes either Sascha Zverev or Dominic Thiem to Rod Laver Arena.
* Novak is 7-0 in Australian Open finals and 3-5 in US Open finals. Reaching 15 major finals on hard courts prior to the 2020 Australian Open is insane. The scarcity of free points on Plexicushion makes Nole even more dangerous on Australia’s hard courts though.