Novak Djokovic’s Australian Open is in doubt after an unprecedented night in Melbourne as he survived an injury scare to reach the fourth round with a 7-6 (1), 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2 win over Taylor Fritz, a match played half in front of an unruly crowd and half in silence after fans were ejected from the stadium mid-match before lockdown at midnight.
“This is definitely one of the most special wins in my life,” Djokovic said. “It doesn’t matter what round it is and against who it is, under these kinds of circumstances, to pull this through is definitely something I will remember forever.”
For more than 90 minutes, events proceeded normally as Djokovic briskly established a two set lead en-route to a seemingly uneventful win. But at 1-1 in the third set on Fritz’s serve, Djokovic slipped while attempting to chase down a forehand winner and he rose from the fall with pain in his abdominal area. After Fritz held serve, Djokovic immediately received a medical timeout and he then received continuous treatment.
The crowd, propelled by the knowledge that the next five days of their lives would revolve around the four walls of their homes after the Victorian state’s decision to return to a short lockdown, were desperate to make themselves known. They cheered, roared and caused havoc in the thousands. The obvious recipient of their energy was, of course, Djokovic who they teased with scattered boos.
As Djokovic’s injury became increasingly problematic and the games fell away, it became clear that the match would not end by the expected curfew of 11.30pm. Fritz won the third set, then he established a break in the fourth. At 3-2 to Fritz and 11.30pm, the umpire called for fans to leave as a notice flashed up on the board: “In line with Victorian government restrictions, you must be home by 11.59pm. Patrons will be required to leave the arena before 11.30pm. Play it safe.” The stadium was duly emptied and the players were moved from the court to discourage any protests.
It took 10 minutes for the crowd to depart, which Djokovic used to tend to his injury. As the players returned to a new world of silence, he slowly began to hit through his forehand again. “The way it felt, at the beginning of the third set when I got my first medical time out, I was debating really strongly in my head to retire the match after two games because I couldn’t move. I couldn’t rotate, I couldn’t return. The only thing I could do is serve and that is what got me out of trouble,” said Djokovic in an interview with Eurosport.
At 3-2 in the fifth set, after primarily keeping himself in the match by crunching both first and second serves, he made his move. After a long rally on break point, Djokovic nailed a forehand winner down the line. His second break of the set coincided with match point and as Fritz’s backhand flew long at 12:20am, the world No 1’s triumphant, relieved roars echoed off the empty seats and loudly into the night.
In his post-match interview, Djokovic identified his injury as a tear and immediately cast some doubt on whether he would continue. “I really don’t know. Right now, I know it’s a tear, definitely, of the muscle so I don’t know if 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. Just I am very proud of this achievement tonight. Let’s see what happens.”