Novak Djokovic booked his spot in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open with a four-sets win over Milos Raonic, despite there being doubts over he’d even be able to play his last-16 tie.
Djokovic, the eight-time champion from Serbia, said he was close to retiring after suffering what he claimed to be a suspected muscle tear in a five-set win over Taylor Fritz in the third round and admitted he wasn’t sure he’d be returning to play.
But, when the time came, Djokovic started at the other side of the net to big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic and secured a 7-6 (7-4) 4-6 6-1 6-4 win in just short of three hours.
This had typically been a one-sided match-up, with Raonic failing to win any of their 11 previous meetings, but uncertainty over Djokovic’s condition added a layer of intrigue to this encounter.
After his win over Fritz, he said in his on-court interview: ‘Right now I know it’s a tear, definitely, of the muscle. I don’t think I’ll manage to recover from that in less than two days. I don’t know if I’m going to step out on the court or not.’
Djokovic did later admit the diagnosis wasn’t certain and it seems highly implausible that the muscle was actually torn.
Raonic did at least, for the first time at a Slam and fourth in total, take a set off top seed Djokovic but the 17-time major winner never appeared to be in serious danger of losing the match.
Djokovic said in his on-court interview: ‘There was no preparation for this match. I used every hour I had since the last match to recover. To put myself in a position where I had a possibility to compete. My physio did a great job.
‘I was definitely fitter in the past. That’s as much as I can say. I’m taking each day at a time. For me, more than training is recovery right now. To, again, put myself in a good condition to compete in the next match.
‘If it’s any other tournament than a Grand Slam, I would withdraw from the event, that’s for sure. But I want to give my best to try and recover and get on the court. I didn’t know before I finished my warm-up whether I was going to play or not.
‘When it warmed up, it was fine. During the match it was kind of on and off. It’s not ideal but I cannot complain. I won the match against a great player. Hopefully it’s going to be even better in two days.’
Djokovic, who declined to attend his post-match press conference after beating Fritz, did have a patch on his abdominal area but, in truth, his game didn’t seem to be affected by the problem.
The world No. 1 will go on to face Alexander Zverev, who defeated Djokovic’s compatriot Dusan Lajovic in straight sets, but for Raonic it was Australian Open heartbreak on Valentine’s Day.
There were no signs of discomfort for the world No. 1 early in the match.
Indeed, he was the aggressor, forcing Raonic to save the first two break points of the match.
As the first set drew on, however, Djokovic could be seen grimacing and stretching out the affected area.
Still, the top seed took the first set after 56 minutes, with Raonic playing a sloppy tiebreak.
After saving a break point on his serve, Raonic had his first opportunity to break early in the second set as Djokovic’s temper flared, exploding at his box. He did, however, hold.
Raonic was the first player to require a medical timeout – receiving strapping on his right ankle – and the first to seal a break in the match. It was all he needed to level the match.
Djokovic hit back in the third, breaking twice – boasting some remarkable return winners in the second of those breaks – to cruise back in front. From there, there would only be one winner.
In the other set men’s quarter-final, Grigor Dimitrov will take on Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev.
Serena Williams faces Simona Halep in the pick of the women’s quarter-finals, with the winner taking on either Naomi Osaka or the tricky Hsieh Su-Wei.
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