Novak Djokovic fends off Dimitrov and pain to reach Australian Open last 16

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Novak Djokovic was not aware Andy Murray was about to be beaten on another court. He was still on Rod Laver Arena, having survived the pain of his troublesome hamstring and then thrived despite it to see off Grigor Dimitrov 7-6 (7), 6-3, 6-4. As far as he knew, he and Murray were the only grand slam champions left in the men’s draw. Two 35-year-olds battling their own bodies as much as their opponents.

“Thirty-five is the new 25, you know,” Djokovic said, jesting as if he had not just grunted through more than three hours of probable torture and a medical timeout to get the job done. “Look at Rafa, look at Andy. They’re all playing at an extremely high level.

“Every season counts now, when you come to the last stage of your career. You start appreciating and valuing every single tournament more because you know you might not have too many left in the tank. It’s been almost 20 years of professional sport, so I can’t be more grateful than I am.”

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A minute or so before Djokovic was feeling grateful, he and Dimitrov played a 31-point rally until the latter overcooked a shot to give the Serb two match points. Djokovic closed his eyes and raised his arms above his head in a clapping motion, corralling the crowd into his orbit for the next big moment.

Loth to miss out, Dimitrov did the same, mimicking his close friend, who was about to beat him. Teasing? Not sure, but it was funny. Then Djokovic served and Dimitrov’s 50th unforced error ended the match and his campaign.

Djokovic is still standing, the only major winner remaining, with his mindset on that coveted 10th Australian Open title, even if his body is not. If there exists such a thing as a gruelling straight-sets win, this was it. The hamstring injury is common knowledge. After defeating France’s Enzo Couacaud in the second round he said it was getting worse, that “it’s not good at all” and he was apprehensive about this third-round tie.

Novak Djokovic, with a strapped left thigh, watches the ball fly back towards Grigor Dimitrov
Novak Djokovic, with a strapped left thigh, watches the ball fly back towards Grigor Dimitrov. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

On Saturday night he was limited in what he could accomplish physically, unable to run for balls he would usually track with no issue, limping at times and even falling dramatically after dragging himself to the net for a drop shot that won him a shaky first set. He had an early break and appeared well on his way before Dimitrov fought back to 5-5 and almost broke Djokovic’s serve a second time while up 6-5 but for three precision aces that forced a tie-break.

The Bulgarian world No 28 had an extra pep in his step, but he could not poke enough holes in Djokovic’s game to drain dry the man he has beaten once in their 11 meetings – as a 21-year-old in 2013. Djokovic was world No 1 then. He is not any more but still knows how to play like he is. How to turn a precarious contest into a regulation win, with one heavily taped leg buckling beneath him, as if it is just the normal thing to do? Part of the result came down to Dimitrov’s inability to exploit the hampered movement of his adversary and his big-point management ceded several opportunities.

But this is the spell of Djokovic, who is four matches away from a 22nd grand slam title. The next will come on Monday against the Australian , the local hope whose legs are very much intact. “De Minaur is one of the quickest players on the tour, the quickest guy,” he said. “He has improved a lot, has Lleyton [Hewitt] in his corner – that’s a great team.”

De Minaur, who has never played Djokovic, was “ready for the battle”. “I’m not going to read into too much of that injury,” De Minaur said after beating Benjamin Bonzi. “Ultimately, he’s one of the best players in the world and I’m just going to have to take it to him and not shy away from the occasion.”

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( With inputs from : www.theguardian.com )

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