The world number one, Novak Djokovic, battled through to the last eight of the Australian Open last night after a marathon five set win over 15th seed Stanislas Wawrinka. The defending champion eventually saw off the spirited challenge of the Swiss to triumph 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7, 12-10, in a high quality encounter that went long into the night and into the early morning in Melbourne, finishing at 1.41am local time.
The overwhelming pre-tournament favourite went into his 4th round match after cruising through the opening rounds, defeating Paul-Henri Mathieu, Ryan Harrison and Radek Stepanek without dropping a set. Similarly, Wawrinka – ranked seventeeth in the world – also had not lost a set in securing his passage to the 4th round. Whilst he was expected to present a tougher test for the Serb, few predicted that he could upset the odds. A win at the expense of the 5-time grand slam champion would enable him to reach the Quarter Finals and thus equal his best ever grand slam performance. However, the head-to-head record between the two men didn’t paint a very promising picture for Wawrinka. Prior to the match he had only beaten Djokovic twice – back in 2006 – yet has lost to the Serb eleven times in a row since then.
Nevertheless, right from the very start it was apparent that Wawrinka meant business. In the opening set he broke the Djokovic serve to take a 3-1 lead and dominated the opening exchanges, eventually wrapping up the set 6-1 in only 25 minutes. It is uncommon for Djokovic to lose sets, but the manner in which he was dominated in the opening set took everyone by surprise, with his opponent’s aggressive groundstrokes punching holes in his normally rock solid defence.
To prove that the first set was no fluke he immediately started the second set in the manner of the first. Once again, Djokovic had no answer to his opponent’s aggressive and powerful groundstrokes. The Swiss no.2 was dictating the large majority of points, and thus pushing his winner count upwards of twenty. He subsequently took a 5-2 lead and served for the set, but Djokovic’s determination and never say die attitude helped him to peg Wawrinka back to level the set, before eventually taking it 7-5.
When he broke serve in the opening game of the next set – his sixth game in a row -it looked as if he may well run away with the match. Yet, the Swiss had other ideas and levelled the set immediately. However, after a hard fought set, Djokovic upped his level right at the end to take it 6-4, but the Swiss showed he wasn’t going to give up on a place in the last eight.
In the fourth set he was serving first and dug his heels in, refusing to let Djokovic continue his momentum and run away with the match. Both players were impressive and handled the pressure in emphatic style, holding their service games all the way to six games all, and therefore sending the set to a tie-break.
Wawrinka gained the upper hand early on in the tie-break, taking a 3-0 lead courtesy of two Djokovic unforced errors and a trademark backhand winner down the line. A successful hawk-eye challenge by the Serb cut the lead to 4-3 with Wawrinka serving. Yet, the Serb couldn’t build on the prevous two points whilst his opponent held firm to give himself 3 set points. The first two were saved by Djokovic, but Wawrinka saved the best till last. After hitting several near winners, he finally broke the Djokovic resistance thanks to a forehand winner, capping off an incredible set of tennis and sealing the tie-break 7-5.
Wawrinka’s efforts deserved the chance of a fifth set and so did the match. He started the deciding set in brilliant fashion and didn’t give Djokovic a chance to regroup, continuing his momentum as another forehand winner earned him the early break of serve at his second opportunity. However, it is a situation that the world number one has experienced numerous times, and he is accustomed to coming through these matches. His back-to-back 5-set victories over Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal last year are a testament to both his mental strength and his physical attributes.
Subsequently, Djokovic earned himself a break point in the next game, but a nerveless overhead smash helped the Swiss save the first break point. However, he couldn’t save the second as Djokovic hit back immediately with the break of service. The defending champion then saved two break points for a gutsy hold of serve. With both players fighting hard to hold their service games, the match continued to hang in the balance in the ensuing games.
It was at 4-3 that the opportunity came for Djokovic; with Wawrinka serving he had a break point to take a 5-3 lead. Yet he passed up the chance by uncharacteristically dumping what can only be described as a regulation forehand into the net. It looked as if he was going to be left rueing this missed opportunity, and in the following game Wawrinka passed up several chances to take a 5-4 lead. There was controversy in his fourth break point opportunity as an excellent Wawrinka return of serve was wrongly called out. After consulting the umpire he opted not to challenge the call, but his failure to use Hawk-Eye to challenge the call may well have cost him the break of serve, and the chance of serving for the match.
He subsequently held his nerve to level the set but Djokovic continued to hold his serve as the match duration approached the five hour mark. Yet, Wawrinka bravely responded by continuously holding his own service time and time again, thus keeping himself in the match. Djokovic’s ability to cope with going deep into a fifth set was not in doubt, but the Swiss was able to match him in that respect, eventually levelling the match at an incredible 10-10. By this point, players were feeling the physical effects of the match but were remaining mentally tough under the pressure and under the watch of 15000 spectators in the Rod Laver arena.
After taking an 11-10 lead, Djokovic finally made the breakthrough and earned himself match points in the following game. After saving the first match point with a great serve, the second was saved with a stunning backhand down the line – an incredible shot that was executed with perfection under the highest of pressure. But the champion had the bit between his teeth, and Wawrinka just couldn’t find a way out of the game. At the third time of asking, Djokovic finally broke Wawrinka’s resolve and settled the match on another incredible point with a backhand passing shot that left Wawrinka slumped on the ground.
He was consoled by Djokovic when the pair embraced at the net, and as expected was distraught walking off the court, but hopefully he can benefit from knowing that he can push the best in the world all the way on the biggest of stages. It was plain to see how much Djokovic wanted the win; ripping his shirt off and celebrating in the same manner as when he won the title last year, stating after the match, “It was like a final to me.”
It was a match that had just about everything, undoubtedly one of the best seen at the first grand slam of the season. The match was laden with great rallies and shot-making, and Wawrinka has to take a great deal of credit in this regard; with Djokovic later admitting that his opponent was the aggressor in the match. Wawrinka took the game to the defending champion, and his one handed backhand frequently lit up the Rod Laver Arena, coming up with numerous winners down the line.
He understandably left the court physically and emotionally drained, but can hold his head high after his performance, pushing the world number one and defending champion to the brink of a 4th round exit. And, he stated after the match: “I think it’s by far the best match I’ve ever played, especially in five sets against the number one player.” It is evident that if he continues to play like he did today then it won’t be long before he gets back into the top ten in the world.
Novak Djokovic was perhaps not at his best, and relied a great deal on his defensive abilities throughout the match, not to mention his sheer willpower, but champions find a way to win in all sorts of circumstances, and that was just what Novak Djokovic did. In winning, he therefore kept his bid alive of winning three straight Australian Open titles, and will face Tomas Berdych in the last 8, who earlier booked his place courtesy of a straight sets win over the South African, Kevin Anderson.