Novak Djokovic’s mental strength saw him into the fourth round with straight sets victory over Grigor Dimitrov in spite of his continuing problem with a hamstring which clearly limited his movement.
I thought a double break in the third would be enough for me but he was locked in right until the very last shot. I didn’t know if I’m going to prevail or not, it was an incredible battle three sets over three hour Novak Djokovic
The fourth seeded Serbian arrived on court with a hamstring heavily bandaged on his left thigh and while satisfied that his goal of a record-breaking10th Australian Open title remains on track, he needed three-hours and 7-minutes to secure the 7-6(7) 6-3 6-4 win over the Bulgarian 27th seed, a match punctuated by him falling on the court, limping between points and failing to run for some balls.
The question is now whether Djokovic can continue to recover and get fit enough to beat Australia’s ‘Demon’, Alex de Minaur in the next round on Monday.
Worries about Djokovic’s fitness grew louder when he was spotted practising with heavier taping than for the match.
But the Serb removed immediate fears in the opening game, becoming the first man to break Dimitrov’s serve all tournament.
Dimitrov was able to save a set point thanks to a quality backhand of his own at 30-40 and 5-3, then a second off a strong second serve and a third with an ace.
At one point Djokovic chose not to slide for a ball on his right side, perhaps due to his hamstring issue, and a few points later stopped mid-point after a worrying yelp, then limping somewhat.
Another scary stumble saw Dimitrov earn a break point at 30-40 – on which Djokovic received a time violation – and the Serb then sent a forehand long to give up the break for 5-5. It was the first time Djokovic had been broken all tournament.
Djokovic gave up on the point and then complained about the previous time violation to the chair umpire.
“Good, good, good. Good job. First time in the entire set, break point, you give me a time violation. Right when I was about to throw up the ball. Well done,” Djokovic told John Blom.
Djokovic then had to save a set point at 30-40, doing so with an ace, then another with a body serve before forcing the tiebreak with his third ace of the game.
Just when things started to look bad, the 21-time grand slam champion raised his game taking a 5-2 lead in the tiebreak which soon evaporated with Dimitrov getting things back on track before the pair swapped set points.
Eventually Djokovic’s fifth – the set’s eighth – came after a 23-shot rally. After 77 minutes, he came into the net but managed to get a racket on the ball, dropping it over for the set.
At which point Djokovic dramatically collapsed to the court, called for the physio and received treatment to his thigh.
On resumption it took the pair 31-minutes to complete the first four games – the fourth a lengthy affair which Dimitrov held and at one point, left Djokovic prone on the court.
Djokovic managed to break through for 3-2 which proved enough for him to take the set and Dimitrov looked finished when after a lengthy 11-minute opening game, fell behind 1-0 in the third.
The Bulgarian was broken for a second time but fought back to reclaim it but was finally broken for a third time, this time to love. Again, Dimitrov pressed his opponent sufficiently to force Djokovic into double-faulting on break point but the Serb had enough in the tank to go on and limp over the finishing line.
Reflecting on the match Djokovic said later: “I think every point, every game mattered and the turning points for both players were right from the blocks. Making an early break for me was important.
“I didn’t know how I would feel physically, I was going up and down. Grigor I admire and respect, he’s one of my best friends on the tour, we go back a long time, one of the most talented players you’ll see on the tour. he’s been around for many years — he’s such a great athlete.
“I thought a double break in the third would be enough for me but he was locked in right until the very last shot.
“I didn’t know if I’m going to prevail or not, it was an incredible battle three sets over three hours.
“I think 35 is the new 25,’ Djokovic concluded. “Look at Rafa, look at Andy. They’re playing to an extremely high level; we are trying to do the same.”
Djokovic faces Alex de Minaur, the Aussie who is known as ‘The Demon’ for his indefatigability, in the next round.
The 22nd seed made reasonably lightwork of the Frenchman Benjamin Bonzi to go through 7-6(0) 6-2 6-1.
In other action the ninth seeded Holger Rune from Denmark, defeated another Frenchman Hugo Humbert 6-4 6-2 7-6(5) to advance for a meeting with the fifth seeded Andrei Rublev, Dan Evan’s conqueror.
In the bottom quarter, American Ben Shelton took out Australia’s Alexei Popyrin 6-3 7-6(4) 6-4 and will face his compatriot JJ Wolf, a 6-4 6-1 6-2 winner over Lucky Loser Michael Mhoh, also of the US, who complained about the boisterous and noisy crowd, declaring them a ‘circus’.
Finally, Tommy Paul takes on Roberto Bautista Agut, the pair progressing after respectively defeating Jenson Brooksby 6-1 6-4 6-3 and the latter Andy Murray, 6-1 6-7(7) 6-3 6-4.