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Alix Checks in on The Tennis in Melbourne • Djokovic’s Medical Miracle Sees Him Through

By Alix Ramsay

Whatever it is that the medics and the physios have at Melbourne Park, I would love some of it. For around 40 hours, they worked on Novak Djokovic and his pulled/torn/hurty abdominal muscle; they scanned him, they prodded him, they massaged him and they gave him pills. And they mended him.

On Friday night, the world No.1 said that he had contemplated retiring against Taylor Fritz. So great was the pain following a stumble, a twist and a jolt to his abs that he felt he could not go on. But he did and he won in five sets. By the fifth set, he seemed fine. Well, he did to Fritz who did not sound convinced that there was anything wrong with the Serb.

Then, on Sunday night against Milos Raonic, he appeared to be in some discomfort but he still won. And he still leapt on his returns, he still defended like a cornered ferret and he still turned defence into attack into a nano-second.

Milos Raonic of Canada in action during his men’s singles fourth round match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia at the Australian Open Grand Slam tennis tournament at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 14 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT

As ever, Raonic was his own, unique mix of thundering powerhouse one minute and frail, hesitant flower the next. He had some chances and he failed to take them. Then Djokovic stopped giving him any chances. After two hours and 56 minutes, the wounded champion was through to the quarter-finals 7-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.

On Friday, Djokovic told the world that he had torn a muscle. He was convinced of it. But then, on Sunday, when he saw that he had a chance to win and then to rest and recover and, possibly, to move on again, he kept schtum. No, he didn’t want to tell us what was wrong. No, he was not going into any details. But, yes, he’d been a brave little soldier to get through.

“I understand that you want to know, but I really don’t want to get into it what it is,” he said, rather unhelpfully. “Yes, I did an MRI, I did everything, I know what it is, but I don’t want to talk about it now. I’m still in the tournament. I hope you guys understand that. I don’t want to speculate too much about it.

“It’s not ideal for me. I mean, I definitely have felt better, you know, before my third-round match against Fritz than I have starting from third set with Fritz when that happened and all the match today.

“I didn’t know few hours before I stepped on the court tonight whether I’m going to play or not. I didn’t hit a tennis ball yesterday. I tried to use every single hour possibly to recover and give myself at least a little bit of chance to step on the court, which I have done. If I’m part of any other tournament other than Grand Slam, I definitely wouldn’t be playing.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia in action during his men’s singles fourth round match against Milos Raonic of Canada at the Australian Open Grand Slam tennis tournament at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 14 February 2021. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT

“Mentally I think you have to kind of accept that I did come into the match knowing that I’ll probably feel pain all the way through, which was the case. But it was the level of the pain was bearable, so I could actually play. And it was kind of going on and off a little bit during the match. Certain stage of the match it was more; certain stages less.

“But I somehow managed to find a way and win, and that’s what matters the most. Now I’ve got another 40 hours or something like that till the next match.”

That was all as clear as mud, then. But finally, he fessed up that it was an abdominal muscle that had pinged – he sort of had to because everyone could see from the TV pictures that he had a whopping great bandage that stretched from his right hip all the way up to his ribs.

“Probably people have seen it,” he said with something of a smile. “I mean, I have the tape on my abdominal muscle. I guess that’s where [the injury] is.”

Thanks, Novak; you could have said that earlier. Anyway, he now faces Sascha Zverev for a place in the semi-finals. The German wasted little time in moving past Dusan Lajovic 6-4, 7-6, 6-3 to set up an eighth meeting with the world No.1. Djokovic has won all but two of their encounters including a tight three setter in the ATP Cup a couple of weeks ago. No matter; Sascha was looking on the bright side.

“You’ve got to play your best tennis, especially here,” he said. “This is his favourite court; this is his favourite tournament. To be able to have a chance against him, you have to be playing extremely well. You have to be playing aggressive tennis, I think, being the one that dominates.

“I had two of my biggest wins against him in the Rome final and London, but the other matches were extremely difficult. I mean, we played twice in the last few months, in London once and at the ATP Cup, which was an extremely close match, which could have gone both ways. I think he would say the same thing.”

Meanwhile, making his way quietly through the draw is one Grigor Dimitrov. He is hoping to reach only the third grand slam semi-final of his career but standing in his way is Aslan Karatsev, the giant-killer from the qualifying tournament.

The Russian had already dismissed Diego Schwartzman on his way to Sunday’s fourth round against Felix Auger-Aliassime and backed that up by stunning the No.20 seed in five sets. And coming back from two sets down to do it.

Dimitrov, then, is not taking Karatsev lightly. He thumped Dominic Thiem 6-4, 6-4, 6-0 to reach the last eight (as Thiem admitted, it really wasn’t one of his better days) and is treating his next opponent with care and caution.

Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria in action against Dominic Thiem of Austria during their men’s singles fourth round match of the Australian Open Grand Slam tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia, 14 February 2021. EPA-EFE/JASON O’BRIEN

“Clearly in order for him to be here, he’s done something right, and he’s playing great tennis right now,” Dimitrov said. “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, and I think it should never affect anything coming in your head to that extent, just focus on your side of the net, focus on your game plan, control what you can on your end and then progress through.”

That seems to be Karatsev’s attitude, too. He is 27, he has never played in the main draw of a grand slam before and yet here he is in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open. He seems to be enjoying the attention and as for the game plan, it is pretty simple: do what he does best and see what happens.

“I play aggressive,” he said, “try to play more aggressive style, like going for big serve, and to work the point like as short as I can, like not so long point, not run behind the baseline, that match. Try to stay close to the line. Yeah, probably I would say like that.”

And, for the world No.114, it is working well. It might not win him the title but if Dimitrov starts to feel the pressure, it might just be enough to get him into the semi-finals.