Australian Open 2021: Djokovic survives extraordinary Fritz test as curfew descends on Melbourne

Thiem battles to high-octane Kyrgios win; Auger-Aliassime defeats close friend Shapovalov

Novak Djokovic is defending champion at the Mutua Madrid Open (Photo: Marianne Bevis)
Novak Djokovic (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

It was not news that any Victorian wanted to hear, but after an outbreak of coronavirus in a Melbourne hotel, the authorities announced a swift, short lockdown—which came into effect at midnight.

The fans had been slow to embrace this year’s Australian Open—it began late to accommodate extensive quarantines, and after the seasonal holidays were over. But by Friday, the permitted attendance of 30,000 was almost there… only for the increasingly vocal crowds now to be banned for five days.

But not before some extraordinary matches played out on the big arenas on a cool Melbourne night.

The highly-anticipated meeting between close friends and compatriots, the young Denis Shapovalov and even younger Felix Auger-Aliassime, certainly added some style to the evening’s schedule, as both men played explosive, expressive, though contrasting styles of tennis.

Shapovalov got the first break in the opening set, but Auger-Aliassime hit straight back with a break to love, and then powered to a love hold. Shapovalov then went 40-0, only to find himself at deuce again, but he held for 5-5.

Auger-Aliassime produced another love hold, Shapovalov tightened up, 0-40, and the younger Canadian broke, 7-5.

Shapovalov went for a comfort break, but also took some meds from a doctor in the tunnel. Certainly, his serving was inconsistent, but again he got the first break, again in the seventh game. Yet still his serve was letting him down, just 38 percent of first deliveries in play. On break point, Auger-Aliassime pulled off a stunning forehand pass, 4-4, then held to turn the pressure back on Shapovalov. Sure enough, Auger-Aliassime broke again, 7-5.

This time, Auger-Aliassime looked in command from the start of the set, his game flowing, his focus complete. He immediately broke, and consolidated for a 3-0 lead. Shapovalov’s head dropped, and he looked emotionally spent. He finally got on the board, but the 20-year-old did not blink, even taking on Shapovalov at the net. Auger-Aliassime served it out to love, 6-3, after two and a half hours, and to the delight of the crowd.

Until this week, he had not won a match at Melbourne Park, now he was into the fourth round for only the second time at a Major tournament, and it was in some style: 14 points won at the net, 31 winners for only 19 errors. He next plays qualifier Aslan Karatsev, who put out No8 seed Diego Schwartzman, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.

In this quarter, Grigor Dimitrov also advanced after winning just one set, but who would he play in the fourth round: No3 seed Dominic Thiem, or the home crowd’s star turn, Nick Kyrgios? It would take five explosive sets and three hours 21 minutes for this one to resolve.

At the start, Kyrgios could do little wrong, buoyed up by the vocal home crowd in his perfect environment. He broke in the very first game, and served it out, 6-4. In the second, he broke in the ninth game, and served out in the next with a love hold, 6-4. His serving was spot on, up to 137mph, with almost 70 percent of first deliveries hitting the mark.

But Thiem’s resilience and fitness bore fruit at last, with a break after an eight-minute second game in the third. A love hold, and the US Open champion led, 3-0, and went on to serve out the set to love, 6-3.

Kyrgios had to dig in, draw on the energy of the crowd, to survive more than 11 minutes in the first game of the fourth set. He had already played an intense five-setter in the second round, and this was becoming a big physical test. Meanwhile, Thiem’s serving was clutch: he went 36/37 points on serve to hold for 4-4. Kyrgios fended off break points but started to play more reckless points at the net, and he was punished. Thiem broke, then saved a break point to serve it out, 6-4.

Was Kyrgios spent against one of the fittest men on the tour? He sprinted to a 1-0 lead to love. He got the crowd on their feet again, with an underarm serve, a drop shot winner, and another net play for his own love hold. Indeed, there was not a glimmer of a chance on either side until the seventh game, but then it was a break to Thiem, consolidated by yet another love hold, 5-3.

The Austrian, runner-up in Melbourne last year, clenched his fist for the first time at the one corner of the John Cain arena that was not cheering on Kyrgios, his player’s box. He went on to serve out the match with his 57th winner—and he had made only 28 errors—6-4.

The No3 seed summed it up:

“It was an epic match, I think, huge effort from both players. Honestly, I was already almost on my way home when I faced two breakpoints in the beginning of the third set. But in general, I think it’s one of the tougher challenges out there in tennis to face Nick when he’s on fire on his favourite court with an unbelievable atmosphere and crowd behind him. So I’m super proud how I got through it, and definitely gives me a big boost.”

But theirs was not the last match to finish on this Friday night: That was left for the eight-time and defending champion, Novak Djokovic.

Djokovic edged the first set against No27 seed Taylor Fritz after an early exchange of breaks, 7-6(1). Fritz could not convert a break chance in the second set, and instead Djokovic broke for 6-4, but a slip from Djokovic on the first point at 1-1 in the third changed the momentum entirely. He held his side as he headed to his chair after the game, and took a medical time-out and, he afterwards admitted, the maximum dose of anti-inflammatories.

Now his focus was on big serves to avoid too much chasing to his forehand side, and he delivered his fastest second-serve, an ace, in the eighth game. He was now taking physio treatment at each change of ends, and his head was down. Fritz got the break, and capitalised with a love hold, 6-3.

The American broke in the third game of the fourth set, too, and held for 3-1, but now the momentum would change again. Half an hour before the midnight curfew, everyone had to vacate the arena, and the players left court for almost 10 minutes. It must have been a welcome relief for Djokovic, and provided a little more time for those meds to take effect. But on their return, Fritz held onto his advantage for the set, 6-4—though both men dropped barely a point on serve.

It was a similar story in the decider, both holding serve with ease, until Fritz began to leak errors, lose some intensity, while Djokovic was now playing freely, and the Serb broke for 4-2. All at once, Fritz was serving to stay in the match, and had several chances to hold, but Djokovic yielded not an inch and broke for the match, 6-2.

He roared to his box and the empty, echoing arena, but cut a more sombre figure when asked about his injury.

“Everything was working fine for me, and then beginning of the third set I made this quick move to the forehand, rotating there, and I just felt a tear, I felt something happen. So I don’t know if I’ll manage to recover from that in less than two days. I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m gonna step out onto the court or not.

“I am just very proud of this achievement tonight. Let’s see what happens tomorrow.”

If he does recover, he will play another big-hitting man in Milos Raonic, who came through Marton Fucsovics in four sets. The other match in this quarter will feature Dusan Lajovic against No6 seed Alexander Zverev.

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