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Thiem Beats Kyrgios and Injured Djokovic Limps to Victory as Melbourne Goes Back Into Lockdown

Protesting spectators are asked to leave during the Round 3 Men’s singles match between Novak Djokovic of Serbia and Taylor Fritz of the United States of America on Day 5 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 12 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS

By Alix Ramsay

And then just like that, it was over. For four, carefree days, the Australian Open had truly been the “Happy Slam”: fans coming to Melbourne Park in greater and greater numbers, players lapping up the applause and loving every second of their time on court and Nick Kyrgios revving up his followers to ever more fanatical levels of excitement.

And then Melbourne went back into lockdown and Kyrgios lost. To add to the sense of gloom, Novak Djokovic tore a muscle around his right ribs and has no idea if he can play again on Sunday. It was like the lights had gone out over the Australian Open.

An outbreak of Covid at one of the quarantine hotels near the airport (one that has nothing to do with the tennis) produced 13 positive tests. Some of those affected were relatives of the hotel workers and, therefore, outside the quarantine bubble. It meant the virus was now back in the community.

The Victoria government met on Thursday night and decided to impose another lockdown. The plan is that this one – Melbourne’s fourth – will last for five days, although those plans can change hourly depending on the infection rates. No one but essential workers are allowed to leave their homes. Only trips for food, medical treatment and limited exercise are permitted. Melbourne is back in prison and as of 11.59pm on Friday, everyone had to be back at home.

This posed something of a problem for Craig Tiley and his staff. As we all know, tennis in Australia tends to run into the small hours of the morning. The only solution was to allow the paying punters to stay on site until 11.30pm but then they were to be sent home no matter what was happening on court. Given that the fans attending the night sessions like a beer or several, this could be tricky. And given that Kyrgios was playing Dominic Thiem on Friday evening, this could be hell on wheels.

Spectators depart Rod Laver Arena mid-match to meet the 11:59pm State lock-down enforcement in Melbourne, Australia, 12 February 2021. Spectators will be banned from attending the Australian Open from Saturday, as Victoria enters lockdown for a third time in a bid to suppress an outbreak of the UK strain of coronavirus. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT

As it turned out, Kyrgios was out by 10.40pm, beaten in five sets by the US Open champion. That was one potential flashpoint dodged. But it did leave Novak Djokovic hobbling painfully through the second half of his match with Taylor Fritz to sort out.

The defending champion did not so much fall as stumble awkwardly at the start of the third set and, at first, it looked as if he had hurt his hip. But as he called for the trainer, had treatment and played on, it seemed to be a muscle on the right side of his rib cage that was the problem.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts during his third Round Men’s singles match against Taylor Fritz of the United States of America on Day 5 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 12 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS

“I know it’s a tear, definitely, of the muscle,” Djokovic said. “So I don’t know if I’ll manage to recover from that in less than two days. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m going to step out onto the court or not.”

From two sets up and seemingly cruising, the champion began to move like an old man between points. He could serve and he could hit his backhand but hitting anything on his forehand wing looked like agony – and that was only if he could hit it at all.

As Fritz made the most of Djokovic’s woes, he took the third set and got a break early in the fourth. But at 3-2, the umpire stopped play. It was 11.31pm and it was time for everyone to go home. Clearing the court took 10 minutes and, in that time, Djokovic clearly made his mind up that he was going to get through this match no matter what.

When they came back, he was going for his forehand – it still looked unbelievably painful, but he was going for it regardless of the outcome. And slowly but surely, he clawed his way back to win 7-6, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2.

“Everything was working fine for me,” Djokovic explained, “and then beginning of the third set, I made this quick move on the return going to the forehand, rotating there, and I just felt a tear, I felt something happen.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia receives medical attention during his third Round Men’s singles match against Taylor Fritz of the United States of America on Day 5 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 12 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS

“I have huge pain; I took the highest dose of anti-inflammatories possible. It did kick in end of fourth, beginning of the fifth when I actually started to move and I could actually start to rally with him from back of the court. Until that moment, it was only serve for me and kind of hoping and praying that I’m going to get an easy ball after my serve so I could just go for it.

“That’s what I’ve done. I honestly don’t know how I won this match. I’m very proud, at the same time sad and worried, because it’s definitely something serious happening with my injury.

“This is definitely one of the most special wins in my life. Doesn’t matter what round it is and against who it is. Under these kind of circumstances, to pull this through is definitely something I’ll remember forever.”

Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates after winning his third Round Men’s singles match against Taylor Fritz of the United States of America on Day 5 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 12 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS

Kyrgios, too, will remember Friday night for a long, long time. Back on his favourite court – the John Cain Arena – and in front as packed a house as was allowed in the current environment, he had Thiem just where he wanted him for two sets and a few points.

It was as if Thiem had never played in front of a big crowd before; he looked tight and tense and he had no idea what to do next. By contrast, Kyrgios was on fire. He served thunderbolts and underarm spinners, he volleyed and drop shotted and when the moment came, he hit groundstrokes that threatened to knock lumps out of the concrete court.

At two sets down and staring at 15-40 in the opening game of the third, Thiem was expecting the worst. “I was already dealing with the loss,” he said. “I was fighting myself. But impossible is nothing.”

But that was the point where Thiem began to enjoy the atmosphere and play like a grand slam champion. From those two break points, he dropped just eight more points on his serve as he went on to win 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.

Dominic Thiem of Austria celebrates after winning his third Round Men’s singles match against Nick Kyrgios of Australia on Day 5 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 12 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT

“His serve is amazing,” Thiem said. “It’s so accurate, tough to read. So that’s why it was very, very difficult for me in the beginning. And then if he plays great like today, on fire, you’re constantly under so much pressure in your own serve. Because, you know, you have in the back of your head that you’re not going to break him or that you’re not going to get a lot of chances to break. And he can always play great return games.

“I think it’s one of the tougher challenges out there in tennis to face Nick when he’s on fire on his favourite court with an unbelievable atmosphere and crowd behind him.

So I’m super proud how I got through it, and definitely gives me a big boost for everything what’s coming.”

Kyrgios is not sure what is coming next for him but he left Melbourne Park with a spring in his step: for three hours and 21 minutes, he fought and he fought. Of course there were some daft shots and the usual back and forth with the umpire but that’s just Kyrgios. For the most part, he was switched on and focused – and when he plays like that, he is stunning to watch. He was proud of what he had achieved and was simply looking forward to playing doubles with Thanasi Kokkinakis on Saturday.

“I’m still proud of myself,” he said. “You know, I took 13 months away from the game, and to produce that level and go toe to toe with one of the best players in the world, I’m pretty proud. I left it all out there. I actually physically felt pretty good. I’m sore now.

Dominic Thiem of Austria (R) is congratulated by Nick Kyrgios of Australia after winning his third Round Men’s singles match on Day 5 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 12 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT

“He’s a hell of a player. He’s so disciplined. He’s so composed. His level doesn’t drop.

“I left it all out there. I put myself in a position to win. I was up two sets to love tonight, and he came back and he won. I’m not upset. I’ve lost from two sets to love before. I’ve been here before, and it’s all right.”

It may be the last we see of Kyrgios for a while. He has little wish to travel through the pandemic, enduring quarantine wherever he goes in order to play in empty arenas and then to quarantine again when he comes home. Then again, as he says, he can “change like the wind”. But that is why people flock to see his matches (when they are allowed to): you never know what you’re going to get with Nick but you can be sure that it will never be dull.