No. 1 Novak Djokovic showed once again why he is the toughest out in tennis. The two-time defending Australian Open champion overcame 15th-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 12-10 on Sunday to advance to his 15th consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal.
Some thoughts on the five-hour, two-minute match, during which Djokovic rallied from 1-6, 2-5 down and Wawrinka played the best tennis of his life:
• Djokovic fights back … and so does Wawrinka: It seems like forever ago that Djokovic was considered weak — a delicate flower that wilted with just the slightest breeze or twinge of heat. His curiously timed medical timeouts and awkward retirements drew the ire of fellow players such as Andy Roddick, who famously criticized the Serb for being a hypochondriac at the U.S. Open in 2008.
But the brash, spiky-haired kid from Belgrade who talked a big game before he even knew what it meant has morphed into an unbreakable statesman of the sport, melding shotmaking, relentlessness and resolve into one bendy No. 1. He’s become a player you simply cannot doubt regardless of the scoreline. He was shell-shocked by Wawrinka early, as the Swiss No. 2 fired backhand lasers for winners and broke Djokovic at will. Djokovic hadn’t been broken once through three rounds, but Wawrinka did so five straight times to take a 6-1, 4-1 lead in the blink of an eye.
“He made me run all over the court,” Djokovic said. “He never gave me the same ball. He was aggressive from both sides. I didn’t know what’s coming up next.”
Yet Djokovic climbed his way back, as he so often does, pressuring Wawrinka with his returns and sorting out his service games. Djokovic erased a 2-5 deficit by winning the final five games of the second set, leveling the match at a set apiece.
The conventional wisdom said Wawrinka would collapse after squandering a golden opportunity to take a two-set lead. The shocker was that he didn’t. After dropping the third set, Wawrinka set up a tiebreaker in the fourth set. He earned a mini-break early and pulled out this incredible point to force a fifth set:
Again, the expectation was that Wawrinka would fade in the deciding set, especially because he started cramping and received massages on both legs during multiple changeovers in the fifth. But he broke Djokovic in the first game and, after giving the break right back, kept pace with Djokovic from there. Wawrinka had four break points at 4-4 but couldn’t convert, and the two exchanged routine holds until the 22nd and final game of the set. The Swiss saved two match points, including one on yet another terrific backhand winner, but Djokovic finally converted on his third chance in the game.
Wawrinka matched Djokovic’s resiliency and made him earn everything — including a riveting match point:
“Well, it definitely ranks right at the top,” Djokovic, no stranger to epic five-setters at the Australian Open, said of the match. “One of the longest, most interesting and most exciting matches I played in my career.
“All the credit to him. I feel sorry that one of us had to lose. He definitely deserved to win.”
Asked how he stayed positive after losing the second set, Wawrinka said: “Because I was playing great tennis … against the No. 1 in front of a full house. I don’t know why I would be negative.”
• No one saw Stan the Man coming: I admit to thinking that this would be a forgettable matchup. Wawrinka had lost 10 head-to-head meetings in a row (including the last four in straight sets), his last victory coming in 2006. He has performed gamely at times against the top players but hasn’t been able to sustain that tenacity in the face of an onslaught. On Sunday, however, he fought with the belief that he could topple Djokovic.
“It’s by far my best match I ever [played], especially in five sets against the No. 1 player,” Wawrinka said. “For sure, I’m really sad. … But I think there is more positive than negative.”
Whether Wawrinka can replicate that level and intensity throughout the year bears watching.
• Challenge rejected: With Djokovic facing the last of those four break points at 4-4 in the fifth set, Wawrinka hit a return that was called long. A replay showed that the ball was good, but Wawrinka — after looking to umpire Enric Molina for advice — declined to challenge. The players would have replayed the point if Wawrinka had challenged, but he expressed no regret after the match.
“I cannot say I was unlucky for that,” he said. “When you play five hours, for sure you have some option to win. … It’s not one bad call or one challenge that can change the match.”
• Next up for Djokovic: Djokovic will take on Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals on Tuesday. It’s hard to doubt Djokovic’s ability to bounce back from these draining matches. After all, this is the guy who, after beating Andy Murray in four hours and 50 minutes in the Australian Open semifinals last year, rebounded two days later and outlasted Rafael Nadal in a five-hour, 53-minute final.
“I know I can recover,” Djokovic said. “I know I have it in me.”