In the moments before Novak Djokovic stepped on to Rod Laver Arena on Monday night, as he went through his final warm-up exercises in the tunnel underneath the stadium, the eyes of all onlookers rested firmly on his left thigh. How would his hamstring, still wrapped in layers of tape, hold up under the strain of at least three more sets.
Two hours later, the level Djokovic exhibited in his domination of the home favourite Alex de Minaur made it clear he remains the heavy favourite to win his 10th Australian Open title. The fourth seed returned to the quarter-finals after a clean, ruthless performance, completely dismantling his opponent, the 22nd seed, 6-2, 6-1, 6-2.
“Definitely the best tennis I’ve played this year, this tournament, so far this season,” said Djokovic. “Best match. I’m really glad because obviously as the tournament progresses, the matches are going to get tougher. I’m really glad to manage to win the way I did tonight. To feel really great in terms of mobility and movement of my leg, which is great news. So all in all, perfect match for me.”
De Minaur had arrived against arguably the best player in the world with ideal preparation. He had started the year with his first win over a member of the big three, beating Rafael Nadal in the United Cup, and he had followed up last year’s first foray to the Australian Open second week with an identical run.
It was not enough. Early on, De Minaur attempted to impose himself in the exchanges, incessantly taking the ball on the rise and trying to dictate. But the contrast between their weight of shot was immediately stark. Even as he threw his entire weight behind forehands and furiously tried to stay on top of the baseline, De Minaur simply could not push his opponent back.
After absorbing some pressure in the early game, Djokovic stepped inside the baseline and took full control. He served extremely well, he struck the ball exceptionally off both wings, scything through De Minaur’s defence with ease, and his movement became increasingly fluid.
De Minaur is an admirable player with many assets. He is one of the fastest in the world, he looks to take the ball on the rise and he fights until the death. But the nine-time champion exposed his underpowered game, outserving and overpowered him while allowing the Australian just nine winners in three sets.
After his previous straight sets win against Grigor Dimitrov, Djokovic spoke at length about his injury. He described his previous matches as rollercoasters, with pills and hot cream just about helping him through. This time, however, there were no issues. The more he warmed into the match, the more freely he moved, the more he dominated. “I didn’t feel anything today,” he said.
In the earlier rounds, changing directions and other extreme movements caused him pain and he added he is still uncertain about how his body will react to future matches, but on Monday night he felt great. “When I’m free in my mind, this is what happens on the court like tonight,” he said.
Djokovic will face Andrey Rublev, the fifth seed, who outlasted the ninth seed, Holger Rune, in a chaotic, manic five-set match. Despite playing poorly for much of the final set, Rublev was sharp in the moments that mattered.
He recovered from a 2-5 deficit in the final set, then at 5-6, 15-40 he saved two match points with an unreturned serve and winning forehand before closing the game with consecutive aces. In the absurd tiebreak that followed, he trailed 0-5 and 4-7 before dragging himself backagainst an extremely passive Rune. On his second match point, Rublev clinched the victory on a dead net cord directly from his backhand return.
Rublev was asked by the on-court interviewer about the section of the draw he had inherited. “No one wants to face Novak. I prefer to be in any other part of the draw, but not Novak,” he said, not even acknowledging Djokovic had to first play another match. Djokovic’s performance provided a full explanation of why, after so long, he remains feared by the best players in the world.
“A week ago I didn’t really think about the title, I just thought about being in a good enough condition to play the next match until tonight. Tonight, the way I played, the way I felt, gives me reason now to believe that I can go all the way,” said Djokovic.
The 20-year-old Ben Shelton of the United States reached his first grand-slam quarter-final with a 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 6-2 win over his compatriot JJ Wolf. Shelton, who was an amateur college player until last summer, had never even left the United States until he travelled to Australia to begin his first season on tour. He will face another compatriot, Tommy Paul, in the quarter-finals. – Guardian