Australian Open 2015: Low-key Djokovic survives ‘flat’ Wawrinka to reach final

Novak Djokovic beats Stan Wawrinka in five sets to set up an Australian Open final with Andy Murray

Was it ever possible that the 20th face-off between world No1 Novak Djokovic and Australian Open defending champion, Stan Wawrinka, could live up to the hype, the buzz and the expectation that preceded it?

After all, Djokovic had won this title four times before, Wawrinka only the once. Djokovic owned a 16-3 head-to-head over the 29-year-old Swiss and had lost to him only once since 2006, 15 of their last 16 matches.

Here, he had looked in supreme form, just as he had in closing out 2014 with seven titles from eight finals. Last year, Djokovic’s poorest Grand Slam run was a quarter-final finish at this tournament: He went on to reach the semis at the US Open, the final at Roland Garros and to win Wimbledon.

And so far in Melbourne, he had faced only 11 break points, been broken only once, and not dropped a set in five matches

But that single victory of Wawrinka’s in their last 16 matches was also the one that put Djokovic out in the quarters here last year. Wawrinka went on to win his maiden Grand Slam, rise to No3 in the world, win his first Masters in Monte Carlo and end the year as ‘most valuable player’ in the Swiss winning Davis Cup team.

He also arrived in Melbourne with the Chennai title under his belt, had surged through the draw for the loss of only one set, and beat the charismatic tennis of No5 seed Kei Nishikori in straights to reach the semis.

But as Djokovic and Wawrinka were constantly reminded, there was another angle to this match. Last year’s contest was a cracking five-setter decided 9-7 in the fifth. Their previous two Grand Slam contests in 2013 had also been five-set blockbusters—the US Open semi-final and the fourth round five-hour marathon here that went Djokovic’s way 12-10 in the final set.

So was it possible that these two men could treat the world to another thriller?

Perhaps it was that very history and hype, that got into their heads in an opening hour of occasional high-spots but also an unusually high error count in a tentative, cautious first set and a half.

Wawrinka, a naturally aggressive player with big serve, strong forehand and one of the most destructive backhands in the game, can pile up the errors but also stack up the winners: thus far in Australia he had made 203 of the former but 241 of the latter. Djokovic, tactically so accurate and with almost unparalleled defensive skills, makes fewer outright winners but also fewer errors: 181 and 105 respectively.

Here, though, the statistics went into reverse.

They started conservatively enough with just three points dropped on serve in the first five games. Then an edgy Wawrinka floundered through a deuce hold—but inexplicably, Djokovic lost focus entirely to concede a break to 15.

So livid was he that he smashed his racket while Wawrinka received eye drops, and that seemed to do the trick—for a while, at least. The Serb broke back to love, held with a couple of aces, pressed Wawrinka through more break points to 5-5 and played more assertively with two serve-and-volley winners for 6-5.

Wawrinka steadied the ship to take it to a tie-break, only to fall apart. Djokovic sailed to the set, 7-6(1) in a not-too-intense 43 minutes, but both men had made more errors than a paltry tally of 17 winners between them.

The second set also blew hot and cold. Wawrinka faced the first break points in the opening game but it would be Djokovic who conceded the only break of the set with a double fault, 2-4. In little over half an hour, Wawrinka was level, 6-3, though still neither man had made double figures for winners.

The third set began with a plethora of errors, Djokovic holding on through a 10-minute game by the skin of his teeth, and helped by a poor Wawrinka backhand on break point. It was a missed opportunity for the Swiss, and it showed in the next game, conceded with a forehand error to go 0-2. Yet Djokovic, unable to lift his level, promptly got broken back to love.

I told my coach before the match that I was mentally completely dead and no battery

Stan Wawrinka

Wawrinka remained uncharacteristically passive, unable to get his first serve into its groove, playing too many rallies from the back of the court. Occasionally he would pull off a signature backhand down the line, but would as often hit it wide. But it was a netted forehand that handed break and set to Djokovic, 6-4.

Each, remarkably, had made twice the errors to winners, with Wawrinka the more profligate. That turned around in this see-sawing match.

Rather than press on from a quick break in the fourth, Djokovic played a dreadful backhand long to hand the break back. Not to be outdone, Wawrinka hit three errors to offer up three more break chances, but lifted his game long enough to pile-drive his backhand to a hold. Djokovic, looking flat and distracted, played another wayward game to give up a love break, and Wawrinka finally served out the set, 6-4. Djokovic had made 14 errors and not a single winner.

So for their fourth Grand Slam in a row, these two would go to five sets—though that was the only point of similarity with previous epics. Having survived an opening break point, Djokovic finished off an unusual match in unusual fashion, 6-0—concluded, appropriately enough, with Wawrinka’s 69th error of the match.

Djokovic looked more relieved than jubilant at reaching his fifth Australian final, though did not elaborate on the reasons for his inconsistent form: “My game is dependent on how well I move. I think I was too defensive….especially in the second and fourth sets, and Stan stepped it up.

“I think I played well two sets to one and then a break up, and then played a couple of loose games, allowed him back into the match… I made my life very complicated on the court.”

Wawrinka afterwards agreed it had been a strange game, but went on to confess that he had drained his reserves: “Strange. Not the best, for sure. I think there were a lot of ups and downs… For me the first night session—had to adapt a little bit the game… I think I’m physically well, playing well in general. It was mentally that I think I’m paying off the price to finish off the season with Davis Cup, not having a bigger off-season, winning Chennai and here trying to do the best. I told my coach before the match that I was mentally completely dead and no battery. Tough to focus on what I want to do. Tough to focus on my game. And that’s what happened today.”

Afterwards, coincidentally, Djokovic admitted to a similar mental tiredness: “I think it was more mental in a way because once you start playing defensively you spend a lot of energy. He was the one that was dictating the rallies. Some points of the match I did struggle physically to recover for the next one because I run a lot and he was getting a lot of balls back in play… But nothing that will worry me. I’m sure that I’ll be fit and ready for finals.”

He will need to be when he takes on friend and rival Andy Murray for a 24th time in his 15th Grand Slam final. Six times they have played in Majors, three times at the Australian Open, but Murray has yet to beat him in Melbourne. However unless Djokovic can lift his level from today, the result could be very different.

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