The world No1 and six-time Australian Open champion needed only to reach the fourth round in Melbourne this year to assure himself of the No1 ranking come the first week of February, and he achieved that with room to spare against the dangerous #NextGen star and No25 seed, Denis Shapovalov.
The teenage Canadian was one of 10 players age 22 and under to reach the third round, the most in a Major in more than a decade and the most at the Australian Open since the 11 who made in 2004. And Shapovalov was one of three 19-year-olds to try their luck.
However, his task was the most formidable in tennis, a first meeting with the man who has dominated the men’s tennis scene since his triumphant comeback early last summer following a year of elbow problems that culminated in surgical intervention 12 months ago.
Djokovic would lose just four matches in 2018 after he hit the grass season, winning Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Masters in Cincinnati and Shanghai to become the first to win all nine Masters tournaments. Add in final runs at Queen’s, Paris Bercy, and the ATP Finals, and it became inevitable that he would end the year at No1.
And by beating Shapovalov, 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 6-0, he did guarantee extending his run at the top beyond Melbourne. Indeed, it is entirely possible that Djokovic will open up a still bigger gap between himself and the rest through the spring, for he has scant points to defend until the Rome Masters in May.
For now, however, his focus is well and truly on winning a record seventh Australian title and a 15th overall Major in just over a week’s time. And as the form player in the draw, it would take a brave punter to bet against him. After all, he now has a 64-8 record in Melbourne, his best winning percentage at all the Majors. It is formidable.
The Serb had already dismissed an unseeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets, and while the flamboyant left-handed tennis of Shapovalov had the potential to disrupt the impenetrable rhythm and balance of Djokovic, the only signs of such inroads came in the third set courtesy of a dip in concentration from Djokovic.
Shapovalov looked gripped by nerves in the first set, and conceded a double break in quick order with scattered errors. He then settled in, however, and got one break back, only for Djokovic to break once more.
The Canadian had made 19 errors to just four from Djokovic, and although the teenager’s stats were a little better in the second, and Djokovic’s first serve level slipped to under 50 percent, the Serb offered up not a single break chance, and looked on course for a swift straight-sets win when he broke immediately in the third, 3-0.
But Shapovalov broke back in the seventh game, and again in the ninth, helped by two double faults from Djokovic. The Canadian had to fend off a break-back point before reeling off three straight point to take the set. Djokovic, who had notched up an uncharacteristic 14 errors in the set, afterwards explained it thus:
“For the first two sets, I just had things under control. At 4-1, I was agitated. It should not happen to me. I know better. I have experience. But it does happen, I guess. I allowed him to come back to the match.”
But not for long: all that long-cultivated experience and quality returned with a vengeance in the fourth set, and Djokovic stifled the attack of the teenager to break three times and close out the match after two hours, 22 minutes.
“It was important to start off the fourth set well. It was close first two games. Making that break was crucial for me. But I like the fact that I was tested, as well, because you want to be tested, especially as you are improving, going along in the tournament.”
In fact, it was not really close in the first two games—or anywhere along the set. Only in the sixth game did they reach deuce, and even then, Shapovalov did not get a look at a game point: He double faulted on the third match point.
Djokovic next plays another young challenger, 22-year-old Daniil Medvedev, who came back from assorted injury problems of his own to win his first three titles last year, and the young Russian also reached the final in Brisbane a fortnight ago.
Seeded at a career-high No15, the Russian has looked in fine form through the draw, and was pushed to his only tie-break thus far by No21 seed David Goffin. Medvedev, though, came through 6-2, 7-6(3), 6-3, to reach the fourth round of a Major for the first time, and while he has lost both previous matches to Djokovic, they have not played since Eastbourne in 2017.
And aside from Shapovalov’s tough ride against Djokovic, it proved to be a good day for the young players in this half of the draw.
Borna Coric, seeded 11, winner in Halle and finalist at the Shanghai Masters last year, equalled his best Major result with a win over Filip Krajinovic, dropping only his first set of the tournament, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3. He hit 51 winners, and will next play Lucas Pouille, who held off a sterling comeback from teenage wild card Alexei Popyrin, 7-6(3), 6-3, 6-7(10), 4-6, 6-3, after almost three and three-quarter hours. Remarkably, until this year, Pouille had failed to win a match in Melbourne in five previous visits.
Meanwhile, the No4 seed Alexander Zverev, still only 21 years of age, bounced back from a tough five-setter against Jeremy Chardy in Round 2 to beat Australian wild card, Alex Bolt, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2, and also reach the fourth round in Melbourne for the first time.
However, he also added another milestone to his resume: Zverev is now assured of leaving Australia as No3 in the world, equalling his career high ranking. Current No3 Roger Federer, who is defending maximum points at the tournament, will slip into fourth place even if he defends his title.
There is no displacing Rafael Nadal at No2, and nor can the Spaniard displace Djokovic at No1—not in the foreseeable future, at any rate.
It is hard to believe that, just six months ago, the mighty Serb was 22 in the ranks. It has been some year, some comeback, and remains some challenge to take that world record seventh Australian title.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge