After the rollercoaster ride that was Novak Djokovic’s first week at the Australian Open, the nine-time champion is through to the quarter-finals with a statement performance of unerring authority. In thrashing Alex De Minaur, the last home hope in Melbourne, 6-2 6-1 6-2 in just over two hours, the Serbian has gone from appearing vulnerable to exuding a more familiar aura of invincibility. The Australian fans had arrived at the Rod Laver Arena with hopes of a famous win and a raucous night, but Djokovic crushed those dreams with a ruthless fist.
Afterwards, the question was not how he had dismantled De Minaur with astonishing ease, but why. “Because I wanted to,” Djokovic responded, chuckling. It was an ominous warning and from the unease and uncertainty caused by a troublesome and painful hamstring injury, the 35-year-old produced his best display of the tournament so far, reaching a level that will send a shiver down the spines of those who join him in the quarter-finals.
It makes it 25 wins in a row at the Australian Open and on this evidence a 10th title will surely follow on Sunday. Djokovic looked unbeatable and yet, if there was a time to end his run at the Rod Laver Arena, this seemed as good an opportunity as any after the physical and mental exertions of his victory over Grigor Dimitrov in the previous round. Additionally, if there was an opponent left in the draw who could force Djokovic to endure further pain by extending the points, it would have been De Minaur, a gritty and determined competitor fuelled by the promise of creating history for his country.
Djokovic instead took to comprehensively dismissing those concerns. De Minaur was quickly tamed, his hamstring was not a problem, and the expectant home crowd were reduced to a stunned and rather uncomfortable silence as it was faced with a totally one-sided scoreboard. From 2-2 30-30 in the first set, Djokovic went on to win 14 of the next 15 games in a spellbinding display of faultless hitting that left De Minaur kicking desperately for a hold. It was his fastest match of the tournament so far and Djokovic was outstanding. Asked afterwards if he had reached perfection on a tennis court, Djokovic replied: “Close to.”
It’s rare for Djokovic to walk onto the Rod Laver Arena first but before the demolition began De Minaur felt like the main act here, as the wait for an Australian men’s singles winner at Melbourne Park extends into a 47th year. De Minaur was the last one standing and although his previous matches against top-5 players at grand slams had all been one-sided defeats, victory over Rafael Nadal in the United Cup to start the year had indicated that he was starting to bare some fangs.
The 23-year-old emerged with a bold game from the baseline and in the first four games he took on Djokovic shot for shot. But with Djokovic giving nothing away it required a perfect game and it did not take long for the pressure De Minaur was coming under to reach excruciating levels. Djokovic relentlessly took to destroying De Minaur’s belief and when the errors started to be squeezed out by the Serbian it led to a staggeringly lopsided contest.
De Minaur had never played Djokovic and after this he will hope he does not have to do so again for some time. “I think what I experienced today was probably Novak very close to his best,” De Minaur said, and this would have been a humbling night. Djokovic’s return game tore De Minaur’s serve apart; he won just over half of his points on serve and on the other side, Djokovic did not face a single break point. While Djokovic’s left leg remained heavily strapped, the 35-year-old moved well and was untroubled by the hamstring injury that had forced him to take medical timeouts in each of his three previous victories so far in Melbourne.
That, it seems, is the only way he can be beaten now. Djokovic had admitted after defeating Dimitrov in the third round, where he required two medical timeouts for treatment, that he was “holding on” to his hopes – but this was a cruise and the aura exuded by the Serbian was actually that he was stronger than ever. “I played the best match of my year so far,” Djokovic said, and if his level remains that high from here it will take a remarkable effort to prevent him from winning a 22nd grand slam title.
Rublev survives thriller as Sabalenka continues impressive form
Novak Djokovic will face Andrey Rublev in the quarter-finals after the Russian survived a five-set thriller against Holger Rune. In one of the matches of the tournament, Rublev saved two match points against the 19-year-old Rune before coming from 0-5 down in the deciding tie-break. “It’s not a roller coaster, it’s like they put a gun to your head,” Rublev said. “I never in my life was able to win matches like this. It’s something that I will remember for sure all my life. I have no words, I’m shaking.”
The other quarter-final clash in the bottom half of the men’s draw will be an unexpected all-American contest between Ben Shelton and Tommy Paul. The 20-year-old Shelton, who is still in college and had never been outside of the United States before arriving at the Australian Open, defeated JJ Wolf 6-7 (5-7) 6-2 6-7 (4-7) 7-6 (7-4) 6-2 to continue his sensational run. Paul, meanwhile, beat Roberto Bautista Agut, the conqueror of Andy Murray, 6-2 4-6 6-2 7-5.
Elsewhere, Aryna Sabalenka continued her march towards what would be a first grand slam final with a statement 7-5 6-2 victory against Belinda Bencic. Sabalenka is yet to drop a set this season and after several appearances in grand slam semi-finals appears to have fixed the problems with her serve that have prevented her from making a further step in the major tournaments.
Described by Sabalenka as a “disaster” last year, the Belarusian has consulted a biomechanic to fix her serving motion and is the favourite now in the bottom half of the draw after fourth seed Caroline Garcia was shocked 7-6 (3) 6-4 by Magda Linette. The unseeded Linette will take on former world No 1 Karolina Pliskova, who breezed past China’s Zhang Shuai 6-0 6-4. Sabalenka will play Donna Vekic, who ended 17-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova’s dream run.
Includes reporting from Reuters