In an Australian Open beset by injuries, bad luck and a supposed 'Netflix curse' for the superstitious, nine-time champion Novak Djokovic has revealed just how close he came to not playing at all. Djokovic's return to the Australian Open was highly anticipated after the visa debacle that erupted in 2022 as the Serbian star aims for an astonishing 10th title at Melbourne Park.
Even before matches began, Australian fans were left to rue the absences of top men's and women's players Nick Kyrgios and Ajla Tomljanovic due to respective knee issues. Injuries have proven tough to shake at the Australian Open, with Rafael Nadal's tournament undone in the second round after the reoccurrence of a hip issue.
It's been an unfortunate run for some top contenders, and Djokovic says he could have been among them after holding serious concerns about his hamstring injury heading into the tournament. The 35-year-old hasn't quite been the dominant presence at Melbourne Park he has in past years, clearly hobbled by the injury.
After a straight sets first round victory, Djokovic dropped a set and required a medical timeout against Enzo Couacaud before eventually prevailing. After again needing the doctor in his third round win over Grigor Dimitrov, Djokovic said it had been touch and go as to whether he would be fit to play at all.
“I’m just very grateful that I’m actually able to play,” he said. “The way it looked just before the tournament started, I thought that it wouldn’t be possible.
“I’m still here and still holding on. I don’t know what awaits, but I do hope and I have faith for the best.”
Up against Australian hopeful Alex de Minaur in the fourth round, Djokovic faces a stern test against the 23-year-old already notorious for his motor on court. The World No.23 will enter the clash on a high after cruising past Benjamin Bonzi in straight sets.
With Djokovic's prospects of a memorable triumph at the Australian Open taking a significant hit thanks to his injury, the Serbian champion said all he could do was prepare as best he could and accept the obstacle in front of him. Sideways movement has proven difficult, as has reaching high shots.
“It kind of always starts well and then some movement happens and then it gets worse,” Djokovic said. “Pills kick in, some hot cream and stuff, that works for a little bit, then it doesn’t, then works again. It’s really a roller coaster, honestly.
“It requires a lot of energy that is being spent from my side mentally and physically, as well, to deal with the match with my opponent and also with a not-ideal physical state. But it is what it is. It’s kind of circumstances that you have to accept.”
Novak Djokovic injury won't change approach from Alex de Minaur
Despite holding a rarely-seen advantage over Djokovic, de Minaur was determined to treat their showdown like any other, Speaking after this third round victory, the Australian star was wary of Djokovic's renowned ability to find a way to overcome his challenges on court.
“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,” said De Minaur. “I’m going to make sure to make it as tough as I can.”
Dazzling the Rod Laver Arena crowd with his speed and energy, Australia's 22nd seed broke Bonzi seven times in the two-hour, eight-minute mismatch to set the stage for an intriguing Monday night showdown with a clearly hindered Djokovic. He hammered 33 winners, fashioned a total of 22 break points and closed out his final service game to love with his seventh and eighth aces in a clinical display.
"I'm very happy, I can't lie," de Minaur said. "Ultimately, if you want to go deep, and you want to really take it to the best players in the world, that's the game plan.
"I mean, you've got to step it up. It's no secret that against the best in the world you can't just put the ball in the court and wait for them to miss because that's just not going to happen."
De Minaur and Djokovic have yet to clash, and 23-year-old can't wait to get a crack at the nine-time Australian Open champion.
"These are the matches you want to be playing," de Minaur said. "You don't want a walkover into the final of a slam. You want to be playing the best in the world.
"That's what I've got. I'm going to probably have the best in the world in front of me - and I'm ready for the battle. I want to take it to them and show what I'm made of in the biggest of stages and just test myself out there and really take it to them."
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