When you’re chasing history, as Novak Djokovic is, you do whatever it takes to put yourself in a position to compete, to win.
That often means sacrifice. For Djokovic — in pursuit of career-long rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal — that can mean anything from time away from family, adherence to a strict diet and, sometimes, pushing through injury.
When the Serb slipped to the court early in the third set of his third-round matchup with American Taylor Fritz on Friday night, left splayed across the MELBOURNE logo, he knew he had over-stressed, perhaps even torn, an abdominal muscle. He would somehow survive, prevailing, 7-6(1), 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2, and calling it “one of the most special wins in my life”. But no one, not even Nole himself, knew if he would recover in time to take the court against Canadian Milos Raonic in the Round of 16.
As we would later learn, the top seed and two-time defending champion didn’t so much as lift a racquet the following day. So how did he do it? How did he rebound to oust 14th seed Raonic less than 48 hours later, 7-6(5), 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, in what would be his career milestone 300th match win at a major?
“You don’t want to know,” he quipped.
The World No. 1 hinted that he’d had an MRI, spent some time on the table aside physio Ulises Badio and the Tennis Australia medical team, and taken the recommended painkillers, but he wouldn’t get into the nitty-gritty regarding the injury. He knew that to continue was, in his own words, “a gamble,” and that there would likely be some pain, but it was a risk he was willing to take.
Djokovic, who became only the second member of ‘The 300 Club’, the other being Federer (362), said: “It’s a Grand Slam. It matters a lot to me at this stage of my career. I want to do everything possible in this very short amount of time to get on the court.”
Call it a champion’s desperation; an unbending will to win.
Now into the quarter-finals for the 12th time, Djokovic will face sixth seed Alexander Zverev for the second time in a matter of 11 days. They met in Group A play during the ATP Cup, with Djokovic prevailing in three sets, 6-7(3), 6-2, 7-5, his fifth win in seven ATP Head2Head encounters with the German. He’s quite familiar with Zverev’s ability to play first-strike tennis.
“There’s probably going to be gruelling rallies, exhausting, and it’s going to be demanding from my side from back of the court,” said Djokovic, who’s eyeing a record ninth Australian Open title. “He moves very well for his height, his size, but he’s also one of the best servers we’ve got in the game. He’s a very complete, all-around player.
“It’s really in God’s hands where my condition goes from today to the first point against Sascha. I’m just hoping that it’s going to go in the right direction, that I didn’t damage it, whatever is happening in there, too much, and feel even 10 per cent better than I did today. And if that’s the case, I like my chances.”
“You’ve got to play your best tennis, especially here. This is his favourite court, this is his favourite tournament,” said the 23-year-old Zverev, who topped Djokovic, 6-4, 6-3, to capture the 2018 Nitto ATP Finals title. “To be able to have a chance against him, you have to be playing extremely well. You have to be playing aggressive tennis, being the one that dominates. I’m looking forward to the challenge. I think it’s one of the toughest challenges in our sport to be playing Novak at this Grand Slam in the later rounds.”
Despite breaking through to his first Grand Slam final at the US Open last year, the Australian Open has proven to be Zverev’s most successful major championship in terms of matches won. He reached the semi-finals at Melbourne Park last year, dismissing Andrey Rublev and Stan Wawrinka en route to the final four (l. to Dominic Thiem, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(3), 7-6(4)). To make it back-to-back trips to the semi-finals, he’ll have to get past Djokovic on Day 9.
After shocking third seed Thiem, 6-4, 6-4, 6-0, Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov is into the quarter-finals in Melbourne for the fourth time in eight years. And yet he’s heading into the unknown. That’s because his next opponent is a player who, until only days ago, most tennis fans, even the hardcore ones, had never heard of: Aslan Karatsev.
Team Russia’s so-called “secret weapon” in its run to the ATP Cup title, Karatsev, ranked No. 114 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, has spent the bulk of his professional tennis career fighting for points on the ATP Challenger Tour. The 27-year-old won 18 of his final 20 matches at that level in 2020, claiming two trophies, but until this week, he’d never made it through qualifying into the main draw at a major.
Karatsev, who rallied from two sets down in the Round of 16 to defeat 20th seed Felix Auger-Aliassime, 3-6, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4, becomes first Grand Slam debutant to reach the quarter-finals since Alex Radulescu at Wimbledon in 1996, and the first qualifier to reach the quarter-finals at a Grand Slam since Bernard Tomic at Wimbledon in 2011.
Dimitrov isn’t looking past his inexperienced foe.
“It takes time for everyone to get to somewhere, but the best part is that you treat every player the same way, and I will treat this match no different,” he said. “I will still go through my routines. I’m still going to do my work. It’s just honestly another match. I’m not going to think of what the guy has done, what he has accomplished or what is going on.
“Clearly, in order for him to be here, he’s done something right, and he’s playing great tennis right now. Of course, he’s a dangerous player. You’re entering deep into the second week. It’s a quarter-final match of a Grand Slam. You don’t take any of that lightly.”
During Russia’s victorious run at the ATP Cup, all the attention went to Karatsev’s teammates, Rublev and Daniil Medvedev. How does it feel to finally have the spotlight to himself?