Australian Open 2021 - Opinion: Novak Djokovic digs deeper than anyone else in men’s tennis
The world number one fought through an abdominal injury to claim a five-set win over Taylor Fritz, advancing to the fourth round of the Australian Open. Djokovic was forced to dig deep to get over the line having allowed a two sets to love lead to slip. But in front of empty stands in Melbourne, the Serbian proved not everything in the tennis world has changed.
In 37 matches as top seed at the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic had never lost. There was, however, a moment on Friday when it appeared it would be 38th time unlucky for the world number one and defending champion as the pain of an abdominal injury pushed him to the brink against Taylor Fritz.
In fact, there were more than a few moments at which an early exit from the first Grand Slam of the year looked inevitable. The third set and start of the fourth saw Djokovic struggle to even play a shot on his forehand side. Covering the baseline was a strain. His serve was the only thing that kept him in touch with Fritz, who was competitive enough to make the most of his opponent’s drop in physicality.
Highlights: Djokovic overcomes injury to beat Fritz and reach fourth round
“It’s one of the best moments I’ve had in my career under these kinds of circumstances,” the Serbian explained in the Eurosport Cube before sounding a warning over his continued participation in the tournament.
“I’m obviously very, very proud of this but at the same time also a bit worried because I don’t know what’s going on and I think it’s a tear," he said.
I had a kind of weird feeling on one of the returns just before I got a medical time out and I knew right away that something not so great was happening.
“It was confirmed by a physio from the ATP, but let’s see. I don’t know. I don’t have a great experience with tears in terms of continuing in the tournament, so that’s something which is kind of in the clouds for me at the moment, whether I’m going to step out on the court in two days. Hopefully, God willing, I’ll be able to play.”
'I think it's a tear' - Djokovic reveals he may not play fourth round
There were some mitigating factors that perhaps help to explain Djokovic’s recovery. Handed some sort of pain relief by his team from the stands, it’s possible he didn’t feel the effect of the medication for some time. Indeed, Djokovic was swinging much more freely in the closing stages of the match. “Fifth set, he looked pretty good to me,” a rueful Fritz smirked post-match.
Furthermore, the surreal suspension of play at 2-3 in the fourth set due to the state-ordered Covid-19 curfew in Melbourne gave Djokovic some time to regroup. While the Serbian lost that particular set, the 10 minutes it took to empty the stadium marked a shift in the dynamic of the match.
This victory, and the way it was achieved, was yet more proof of how Djokovic still knows how to go further and deeper than anyone else in men’s tennis. The Serbian’s fighting qualities are already the stuff of legend, but what he did here saw him go further than ever before in his refusal to accept defeat.
Next up for the world number one is former Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic. If Djokovic found it difficult to contort and twist his body into a returning game against Fritz, he will find it even tougher against one of the most formidable servers in the history of the game. It could be a bad match-up for Djokovic if he cannot shake off his injury.
'It's very worrying' - Wilander on Djokovic's injury
“It’s very worrying, I guess the reaction we saw from Novak at the end is a positive because it means that he can possibly fix this injury in a way,” Mats Wilander said after the third round match.
“It does give hope to the locker room because Milos Raonic must be thinking Novak is a little bit injured. It gives the other players hope and it’s worrying times for Novak but I think the victory celebrations say it all. I think this is something he thinks he can fix.”
Don’t be surprised if Djokovic finds a way to cope, though. That’s what he does, even in the most surreal of circumstances at this year’s Australian Open. The sight of empty stands inside Rod Laver Arena were a jarring reminder of how the world has changed over the last 12 months or so, but the manner of Djokovic’s victory was proof that in the tennis world some things remain the same.