As the first Major of the year got underway seven days ago, the talk was all about the perceived imbalance in the men’s draw.
There were former champions Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka, ranked unseasonably low at No17 and No9 due to their injury absence of the last six months, in the same quarter. Also in their quarter were two of the young players tipped for future Major success, No4 Alexander Zverev and No5 Dominic Thiem. Even the unseeded floaters smacked of danger: Doha champion Gael Monfils and Fernando Verdasco, ranked 35 at the start of the 2018, both just missed the cut for seedings.
For the survivors in this quarter there was then the prospect of more big hurdles in the bottom quarter: Defending champion Roger Federer, the fast-improving No7 David Goffin, Juan Martin del Potro newly back in the top 10.
And scattered from top to bottom of the half were some of the brightest prospects among the #NextGen: Sydney champion and runner-up, Daniil Medvedev and Alex de Minaur, Karen Khachanov and Frances Tiafoe, plus the #NextGen Milan champion, Hyeon Chung.
Yet by the fourth round, Wawrinka, still struggling with fitness, Auckland champion Roberto Bautista Agut, Goffin, del Potro, Sam Querrey, and both Zverev brothers were gone.
Djokovic, though, had stepped up to the mark, despite still having some elbow soreness, Thiem saved match points on his way through, a fresh Tomas Berdych was cruising, and Federer had resisted feisty challenges from Jan-Lennard Struff and Richard Gasquet.
But things were about to change as quarter-final places beckoned.
For no fewer than five of the eight men in bottom-half action were targeting their first Australian quarter-final, and three of them, the unseeded Marton Fucsovics, Tennys Sandgren and Chung had not made the quarters at any Major.
Federer, in the afternoon, halted Fucsovics’ chances, 6-4, 7-6(3), 6-2, and extended his own record for Open era Major quarters to 52. It set up a replay of his third-round match in Australia last year against Berdych, who impressed yet again with a blistering win over Fabio Fognini, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4.
And the odds were firmly behind Djokovic and Thiem dealing out defeats to the other two hopefuls. For while Thiem had not made it beyond this stage of any Major except the French Open, the attacking, serve-and-volleying, all-court variety of Sandgren, who was making his debut in the main draw, was still not expected to down the Austrian.
However, Sandgren belted past Thiem in the first set, 6-2, before Thiem got an early break in the second, which he held to level the match, 6-4.
The American got the early break in the third, 3-1, but Thiem, playing from way behind the baseline in an attempt to defuse the attack of Sandgren, levelled, and it went to a tie-break, where again, the American took the initiative and the set, 7-6(4).
The fourth set, too, headed to a tie-break, and the American worked a 4-1 lead and then match point at 6-5, but Thiem held it off with a bold backhand winner, and levelled the match, 7-6(7).
The Austrian raised his fist, as if in victory salute, but he had still to win the final set—and Sandgren had other ideas, despite looking the more tired of the two. He broke in the sixth game and held for 5-2, and as the match closed in on four hours, Sandgren held serve with ease to claim perhaps the most significant match of his career for a place in the quarter-finals, 6-3.
By now, a buzz was also developing on the Rod Laver arena as the 21-year-old Chung raced to a 4-0 lead against his idol, Djokovic.
The Serb, who has worn a support sleeve on his troublesome right elbow throughout the tournament, was slow out of the blocks, sprayed some early double faults, but once he got into the rhythm offered by the similar game of his young opponent, he settled. One break back was followed by a long and gutsy hold for 3-4, and with Chung showing some nerves in the 10th game, Djokovic levelled: It would go to a tie-break.
Here, the confidence of the super-fit Chung would be tested, and he came through with flying colours, 7-6(4). And the Korean’s confidence was certainly justified: He beat fellow young-gun Zverev in the third round in an energy-sapping five sets. Now he had to dig deep to fend off a break in the first game of the second set, and having done so, he broke and held, 3-0.
Djokovic may have needed treatment to his elbow after that long first set but he was determined to fight this one through. He saved break points in the sixth game, then broke to level, 4-4, but now all those Djokovic-like qualities came to the fore for Chung: remarkable defence transitioning to attack, a hold, and a break for the set, 7-5.
The third set cranked up the level of tennis and tension still further, with two exchanges of breaks. After three hours, they were locked at 5-5, 20 forehand winners apiece: It would again go to a tie-break. Yet again the Korean opened a lead, 3-0, but Djokovic levelled until Chung found a couple of strokes of magic—a cross-court winning pass worthy of Djokovic himself. He did not falter again: 7-6(3).
Now he faced his final challenge of the night, the Jim Courier interview, but he handled it with a mature touch:
“I didn’t know how I’d win tonight, I was just honoured to play against Novak and happy to see him back on tour. I try to copy Novak in the way I play because he is my idol.”
But what the coming weeks hold for Djokovic, even the former champion could not answer:
“I really don’t know. Now I don’t know. I have to reassess everything with my medical team, coaches, everybody, scan it, see what the situation is. Last couple of weeks I played a lot of tennis. Let’s see what’s happening inside.”
That, though, is to take nothing away from Chung: He is a champion in the making. Maybe not in Melbourne—even if he comes through Sandgren, then Federer or Berdych, he likely has another former champion, Rafael Nadal, to contend with. But he has made a big statement in Melbourne in that oh-so-tough quarter, of that there is no doubt.
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BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly