Novak Djokovic survives but faces another race against time at the Australian Open

Djokovic is battling illness and injury again in Melbourne  (Getty)
Djokovic is battling illness and injury again in Melbourne (Getty)

Novak Djokovic admitted that he was aware of the similarities between his first- and second-round wins at the Australian Open. Under the weather and out of sorts, Djokovic faced an inspired opponent at the Rod Laver Arena and there was a moment where the 10-time champion wobbled, his six-year winning run at Melbourne Park suddenly under threat. Like it was in the opening round against Dino Prizmic, surviving the third set was key to victory against the home hopeful Alexei Popyrin: Djokovic faced four set points but saved them all on his way to emerging with a 6-3 4-6 7-6 (4) 6-3 win.

Spurred on by his home fans as he stood on the brink of an unlikely lead, it only took an instant of their overexuberance to change the momentum and deny Popyrin. As Djokovic battled and scrapped in the fourth, the 36-year-old was strangely subdued and uncharacteristically flat. Already irritated by the noise of the crowd between his first and second serves, Djokovic identified a heckling fan who he believed had crossed a line: the Serbian stopped, turned from the baseline, and challenged him. Once again, it lifted Djokovic and he found his best level of the match to seal the fourth set.

“Maybe that was needed, I don’t know,” Djokovic smiled. He managed to extend his winning run at Melbourne Park to 30 matches and it is remarkable that fans such as those who were supporting Popyrin have not learnt that Djokovic produces his best tennis when he is provoked into playing against the crowd. Against the Australian, it was what Djokovic required to fire himself up.

“Look, I don’t want to be in those types of situations,” he explained. “Yeah, I was flat emotionally. Game-wise I was quite flat for some part of the match, end of second set, most of the third set. Maybe that was needed for me to be shaken up a bit and start to find the kind of intensity on the court that I needed to have all match.”

Djokovic was ‘flat’ for large parts of the match (Getty)
Djokovic was ‘flat’ for large parts of the match (Getty)

Djokovic admitted he was not at 100 per cent and it showed. With the 36-year-old stretching out his wrist and blowing his nose into tissues between games, Djokovic was affected by illness and injury and had not managed to recover as he had hoped following his opening win against the 18-year-old qualifier Prizmic on Sunday. Djokovic’s forehand was particularly unreliable and was noticeably underpowered. The champion, though, has been here before and there is no one better at peaking at the right time at the grand slams.

“It’s frustrating at times with the kind of level of tennis that I’m playing on the court and some uncharacteristic mistakes that I make,” he explained. “At the same time, that’s sport. You can’t always feel your best or play your best, and you have to find a way to win, which I did against two players who possess great quality, who came out on the court knowing that they can win. They were both confident. They were both hitting the ball very well. Tactically a lot of clarity with what they need to do against me. It was working well. Again, another very close match that was decided in that third set, like the first round.”

Djokovic found his spark to ease to the fourth set (Getty)
Djokovic found his spark to ease to the fourth set (Getty)

Djokovic paused. “Can I be satisfied? I can be satisfied with the win. With my tennis, not so much. But, as I said, it’s normal to go through these kinds of periods or circumstances. You just have to embrace it, try to accept what it is, and build from there. As the tournament progresses, hopefully, things will go in a positive direction in terms of how I feel and play.”

The tests, though, are getting tougher. Djokovic has already spent more than seven hours on court and on Friday will face one of the fittest players on tour as well as the improved game of Tomas Martin Etcheverry, who has so far cruised to straight-sets wins against the 36-year-old Andy Murray and the 38-year-old Gael Monfils. “He’s obviously playing the tennis of his life on the hard court,” Djokovic said. The world No 1, meanwhile, once again finds himself in a race against time with his body and soon, the shouts of hecklers won’t be enough to get him over the line.

Ons Jabeur thrashed by 16-year-old star Mirra Andreeva

by Eleanor Crooks

Teenage star Mirra Andreeva produced a stunning performance to demolish Ons Jabeur in the second round for the loss of only two games.

The 16-year-old Andreeva counts Jabeur as her idol but she was utterly ruthless under the roof on Rod Laver Arena, defeating the sixth seed and two-time Wimbledon finalist 6-0 6-2 in just 54 minutes.

Jabeur could only smile in astonishment at some of the shots Andreeva played, while she celebrated like an underdog when she finally won a game at the start of the second set.

She was unable to stall Andreeva for long, though, with the young Russian branding it the best match she had played.

“In the first set I played really amazing tennis, I didn’t expect that from myself,” said the teenager, who reached the fourth round of Wimbledon last season.

Andreeva defeated Jabeur in just 54 minutes (Getty)
Andreeva defeated Jabeur in just 54 minutes (Getty)

“I’m happy I played with Ons. It was one of my dreams to play against her because I really like the way she plays. It meant a lot, this match that I won.

“She’s so nice. Now, after the match, she came to me, she wished me luck. I just know that she is who she is and she never changes.”

Remarkably, three 16-year-olds were playing in the second round on Wednesday but Andreeva is the only one left.

Her fellow Russian Alina Korneeva, who beat Andreeva in the junior final last year, was unable to exert any real pressure on 10th seed Beatriz Haddad Maia, going down 6-1 6-2.

Then first up in the night session on Laver was Czech qualifier Brenda Fruhvirtova, who had the daunting task of taking on defending champion Aryna Sabalenka.

Fruhvirtova was not overawed, though, and matched the second seed until 3-3 in the first set, when Sabalenka put together a run of seven games in a row on her way to a 6-3 6-2 victory.

Fourth seed Coco Gauff was given a battle in the first set by fellow American Caroline Dolehide but came through 7-6 (2) 6-2.

Caroline Garcia is out, though, the 16th seed, who beat Naomi Osaka in round one, upset by Pole Magdalena Frech.

Gauff set up an all-American battle with Alycia Parks (Getty)
Gauff set up an all-American battle with Alycia Parks (Getty)

In the men’s draw, Stefanos Tsitsipas, who lost to Djokovic in last year’s final, also had to save four set points on his way to victory over another Australian, Jordan Thompson.

Thompson took the opening set and had four chances at 5-6 in the fourth set to force a decider before Tsitsipas sealed a 4-6 7-6 (6) 6-2 7-6 (4) victory.

Fourth seed Jannik Sinner enjoyed a far easier day as he thrashed Dutch qualifier Jesper de Jong 6-2 6-2 6-2 on Margaret Court Arena, but 17th seed Frances Tiafoe was beaten in straight sets by Czech world no 75 Tomas Machac.

Fifth seed Andrey Rublev needed just 99 minutes to beat American Chris Eubanks 6-4 6-4 6-4, while Argentina’s Tomas Martin Etcheverry – who beat Andy Murray in straight sets on Monday – beat Gael Monfils by the same score.

Australian 10th seed Alex de Minaur is also into the third round after beating Italy’s Matteo Arnaldi for the loss of just six games.