Tennis habitues who got to watch Novak Djokovic’s match against Taylor Fritz in the third round of the Australian Open last Friday were treated to a roller-coaster ride that included a stoppage midway in compliance with safety protocols. Owing to the Victorian government’s decision to impose a five-day lockdown in light of the increasing number of COVID-19 cases, play was suspended while spectators lined up in the exits of the Rod Laver Arena at Melbourne Park half an hour before the midnight curfew. At the time, the 27th seed was ahead two sets to one and three to two in the fourth.
Fritz would go on to win the fourth set six games to four, thus forcing a fifth to settle the outcome. That said, he found cause to complain given the 10-minute interruption. “I mean, to be honest, like, completely honest, it’s absolutely ridiculous that… we’re asked to leave the court for 10 minutes in the middle of the match,” he said in his postmortem. No doubt, his frustration was an offshoot of the setback he ultimately absorbed at the hands of Djokovic. After all, the World Number One was then suffering from an injury sustained early in the third set, and any bit of respite was a welcome one.
Significantly, Djokovic disclosed that he suffered from a muscle tear in his own presser, and needed to evaluate his fitness moving forward. Never mind that he didn’t seem to exhibit any deficiencies in dominating the final set — or, for that matter, in taking care of business against the always-dangerous Milos Raonic two days later. Considering his track record in milking ailments for all they’re worth by way of gamesmanship, it’s fair to argue that he’s at least healthy enough to keep plodding on until he’s crowned champion of, or eliminated from, the competition.
Djokovic did admit that he took a magnetic resonance imaging scan and was apprised of the results. Always keen to see the big picture, he acknowledged that he would have withdrawn from further extortions were the title of a lesser event is at stake. However, he’s at the Australian Open, a major tournament he has claimed a record eight times, and far be it for him to set aside his racket with a ninth trophy in the horizon. It likewise bears noting that he remains three Grand Slam victories behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Any opportunity to close the gap cannot be missed.
How well Djokovic does from here on remains to be seen. He refuses to share his diagnosis, likely to prevent opponents from using the information to prep against him. Up next is a quarterfinal-round meeting with sixth-seed Alexander Zverev, against whom he holds a five-two advantage, but who may well be motivated to succeed in the face of his apparent handicap. In other words, he has his work cut out for him.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.