And one pain-free, nearly perfect performance in the fourth round Monday made a world of difference.
“Tonight, the way I played, the way I felt, gives me reason now to believe that I can go all the way,” Djokovic said after completely overwhelming 22nd-seeded Alex de Minaur, 6-2, 6-1, 6-2, to reach the quarterfinals for the 13th time at Melbourne Park and 54th time at all Grand Slam tournaments.
“I mean, I always believe I can go all the way, in terms of my tennis,” continued Djokovic, whose 21 major championships include nine in Australia. “But the way my leg felt before tonight wasn’t giving me too many hopes, so to say, for the entire tournament, to go all the way through. Tonight I feel that, so I feel positive about it.”
A year ago, he got kicked out of the country before the Australian Open because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. He still hasn’t gotten the shots, but the government’s coronavirus rules have been relaxed.
After looking out of joint occasionally in his first three matches in the tournament last week, sometimes stumbling to the ground, sometimes seeking treatment from a trainer, the 35-year-old from Serbia looked like his usual flexible, court-covering, dominant self at Rod Laver Arena against de Minaur.
Djokovic won 42 of 64 points that lasted five shots or more. He accumulated a 26-9 edge in winners. He won all 12 of his service games, never facing a single break point. Generally considered the best returner in the game now—and, perhaps, ever—Djokovic earned a dozen break chances and converted half.
He broke to lead 4-2 in the first set and again to end it. He broke to go up 2-0 and 4-0 in the second. He broke for advantages of 1-0 and 3-0 in the third.
“It just felt like constant pressure today. Every service game I had, wasn’t getting free points. It felt like an uphill battle from the start,” de Minaur said. “Never really was able to get my teeth into the match, make it tough for him, or bring the pressure moments and situations.”
Djokovic said he felt “fantastic” and “really great in terms of mobility and movement.”
In addition to taking “a lot” of anti-inflammatory pills to help the hamstring, Djokovic said he has been using “different treatments and machines and stuff” to help improve his leg. He also cautioned that he does not “want to celebrate too early, ’cause I don’t know how the body’s going to respond tomorrow and for the next match.”
Yes, there are still contests to come and players to contend with.
His upcoming opponent is No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev, who will head into their matchup Wednesday with an 0-6 record in Grand Slam quarterfinals. That day’s other men’s match will be between two unseeded Americans in their 20s who’ve never been this far at a major tournament: Ben Shelton and Tommy Paul.
The men’s quarterfinals scheduled for Tuesday: No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas against unseeded Jiri Lehecka, and No. 18 Karen Khachanov vs. No. 29 Sebastian Korda.
Of the seven remaining men other than Djokovic, none has won a Grand Slam title and only Tsitsipas ever has even reached a major final, and that was just once, losing to—yep, you guessed it—Djokovic at the French Open in 2021.
“I’ve been in this situation so many times before,” Djokovic said, leaning back in his chair and placing both palms on his chest. “From that point of view I think it helps me have kind of a more, let’s say, clear approach to the remaining days of the tournament and what I need to do. Of course, I’ll keep an eye on all the other matches, see how the other guys are doing. We’ll see what happens.”
De Minaur, for one, knows what he thinks is going to happen.
“What I experienced today was probably Novak very close to his best, I would say,” he said. “To me, if that’s the level, I think he’s definitely the guy that’s going to take the title.” AP
Image credits: AP