Melbourne: An ailing Novak Djokovic overcame an abdominal “muscle tear” and jeers from a rowdy crowd Friday to outlast Taylor Fritz in the Australian Open, a five-set triumph he rated as one of his “most special”.
The world number one, however, admitted he faced a race against time to be fit for his fourth-round match against Milos Raonic.
“I know it’s a tear of the muscle, so I don’t know if I will be able to recover from that in two days,” he said. The world number one appeared to be cruising until he needed a medical timeout early in the third set.
Djokovic constantly grimaced afterwards but dug deep in the fifth set and wore down the big-serving 27th seed 7-6 (7/1) , 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2 in three hours and 25 minutes.
“Towards the end of the fourth,it started feeling better,” he said. “I just tried to stay in there and I was hopeful.
“This is definitely one of the most special wins in my life.”
Djokovic was often left frustrated on Rod Laver Arena.
After facing a stern second-round, four-set, examination by American Frances Tiafoe, the Serb again had his hands full against brash Fritz, the highest-seeded American in the draw.
An ice-cool Dominic Thiem rallied from two sets down to tame flamboyant Nick Kyrgios earlier in front of a raucous crowd hours before Melbourne goes into coronavirus lockdown.
Kyrgios produced a virtuoso performance in the first two sets, using every trick in the book, including underarm serves and tweeners, as he fed off the energy at a boisterous John Cain Arena, his favourite court.
But he couldn’t sustain the intensity as US Open champion Thiem, last year’s runner-up, found his groove with some dominant serving to fight back and outlast the 25-year-old 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
He will now play 18th seed Grigor Dimitrov for a place in the quarter-finals, with the Bulgarian through after Pablo Carreno Busta retired injured in the second set.
“It was my first match against Nick on his favourite court with an amazing crowd, there are easier things to do,” said Thiem.
“That is one of the tougher challenges we have in our sport, you never know what is coming. Nick is a huge player when he is on fire, like today.”
Austrian Thiem came into the clash after dropping just six games in his previous match, in contrast to Kyrgios who played a draining and emotional five-setter.
But Kyrgios broke Thiem in the first game and immediately began revving up the mostly mask-less crowd, gesturing for them to get up and cheer.
Fans were out in force for the match, the last time the tournament will see spectators for at least five days after a lockdown was announced in Melbourne to counter a growing coronavirus cluster.
Ever the showman, Kyrgios sent down a cheeky underarm serve and attempted a tweener in his first service game, unsuccessful gambles that nevertheless didn’t prevent him consolidating his lead.
Thiem appeared nervous, missing easy shots, while struggling with Kyrgios’ thunderbolt serves that occasionally clocked in at over 221kmh, with the Australian racking up seven aces in the opening set.
They went shot-for-shot in the second but Kyrgios was still firing big serves and with Thiem standing far back, outrageously aced him with an underarm, sending the crowd wild.
Thiem appeared intimidated by the noise and when he sent a forehand wide to be broken in the ninth game, Kyrgios turned to the crowd with a huge grin on his face.
To top it off, he pulled off another underarm ace to win the set.
But Theim lifted in the third set and finally broke Kyrgios’ resistance to go 2-0 up and started to dictate the rallies, winning the set as the Australian began shaking his head and muttering to himself.
Never short on motivation
Serena Williams said a deep love of tennis kept her motivated in pursuit of a 24th Grand Slam title as she overcame an error-strewn start to move into the fourth round.
The 39-year-old had 31 unforced errors but wore down Russian Anastasia Potapova 7-6 (7/5), 6-2 in 97 minutes on Rod Laver Arena to set up a clash with seventh seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.
“I think if I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t be sitting here. I wouldn’t be in Australia if I didn’t love what I do,” she said when asked how she kept her focus after so many years, having made her Australian Open debut in 1998.
Naomi Osaka, meanwhile, is back in the fourth round at Melbourne for the first time since her title run in 2019. She overcame 28 unforced errors and saved six of seven break points she faced in a 6-3, 6-2 win over 27th-seeded Ons Jabeur of Tunisia on Friday.
Grigor Dimitrov (18), Bulgaria, def. Pablo Carreno Busta (15), Spain, 6-0, 1-0, ret.
Alexander Zverev (6), Germany, def. Adrian Mannarino (32), France, 6-3, 6-3, 6-1.
Dusan Lajovic (23), Serbia, def. Pedro Martinez, Spain, 6-7 (6), 7-5, 6-1, 6-4.
Aslan Karatsev, Russia, def. Diego Schwartzman (8), Argentina, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.
Milos Raonic (14), Canada, def. Marton Fucsovics, Hungary, 7-6 (2), 5-7, 6-2, 6-2.
Felix Auger-Aliassime (20), Canada, def. Denis Shapovalov (11), Canada, 7-5, 7-5, 6-3.
Dominic Thiem (3), Austria, def. Nick Kyrgios, Australia, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
Aryna Sabalenka (7), Belarus, def. Ann Li, United States, 6-3, 6-1.
Marketa Vondrousova (19), Czech Republic, def. Sorana Cirstea, Romania, 6-2, 6-4.
Garbine Muguruza (14), Spain, def. Zarina Diyas, Kazakhstan, 6-1, 6-1.
Serena Williams (10), United States, def. Anastasia Potapova, Russia, 7-6 (5), 6-2.
Hsieh Su-wei, Taiwan, def. Sara Errani, Italy, 6-4, 2-6, 7-5.
Naomi Osaka (3), Japan, def. Ons Jabeur (27), Tunisia, 6-3, 6-2.
Simona Halep (2), Romania, def. Veronika Kudermetova (32), Russia, 6-1, 6-3.