Novak Djokovic of Serbia waves to the crowd as he exits Rod Laver Arena. AP
Melbourne: When it was all done and dusted, applause received, fists clenched and heaven thanked, Novak Djokovic stood alongside Jim Courier and sent a message to seven remaining men in the Australian Open draw.
“I didn’t feel anything last night. I thank my medical team, I thank God. I don’t want to celebrate too soon, I know things can change. I’m happy with how I moved and hit the ball,” he said of his leg injury.
A left hamstring injury has resulted in him missing training sessions, not putting full effort into shots, being badly bonded and in need of regular attention. In his last game against Grigor Dimitrov, he seemed seriously uncomfortable. The Serb admitted to taking pills all week to ease the pain.
“We take it every day. We actually do a lot of things. It was really exhausting being involved in a lot of different treatments and machines and things that we do,” he later explained.
“At the same time it was necessary. It is necessary to get me in a game condition. So I’m really happy that my body responded so well. I had no pain tonight. I moved as well as I have the whole tournament. That means we are moving in the right direction.”
Despite the pain and physical strain, Djokovic only lost one set. On Monday, the former world No. 1 was in his prime against Aussie Alex de Minaur. The nine-time Australian Open champion destroyed De Minaur for the loss of just five games – 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 – and advanced to a 13th Quarterfinals in Melbourne.
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The 35-year-old appeared to be a man on a mission to complete it as quickly as possible. “I really wanted to win in straight sets,” said Djokovic, 35, who hopes to draw level with Rafael Nadal in 22 Grand Slam titles with a win on Sunday.
The two-hour, six-minute romp put him on a collision course with Andrey Rublev, who won in dramatic fashion on the day.
“Obviously you never know what’s going to happen on the court… I thought the first four or five games were pretty tight but after a break in the first set I felt looser and freer to play the ball and be more aggressive.
“I’ve played the best match of the year so far.”
Best game of the year? Recall that Djokovic won the warm-up tournament in Adelaide where he won all but one match in straight sets. In these fortnight he has already bagged two of his opponents.
Such was Novak’s dominance that De Minaur had 0 groundstroke winners (to Djokovic’s 17) and forced the Australian to make 37 errors.
“A different level than mine. I was just trying to persevere,” the Australian later said. “It felt like he could hit winners from any spot on the pitch. I didn’t really know what to do.”
The win also earns him a few milestones. A 13th The Australian Open quarterfinals are fourth behind Roger Federer, Nadal and John Newcombe. It is his 54th Grand Slam quarterfinal participation – second after the 58 of the retired Federer.
Djokovic thus continues his unbeaten run at the Australian Open, where he has been unbeaten since 2018. This increases his record to 25 games won in a row.
As the only remaining Grand Slam champion in the draw, he is now the overwhelming favorite if there was any doubt beforehand. The injury may have given hope to some of his colleagues but that may not be a cause for concern anymore.
“I think when I look at the performance tonight it will affect the game a lot if I worry less about what’s happening to the leg if I don’t have to think about whether or not I’m going to hit a certain ball. If I have a clear mind, that will happen on the pitch tonight.”
Everyone else watch out – Novak is back on the prowl.
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