Novak Djokovic held off a valiant Swiss man for a five-hour, five-set victory yesterday, extending his winning streak to 18 matches at the Australian Open and then ripping off his shirt to celebrate.
The big surprise: it was a fourth-round match against Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland, not a final against Roger Federer.
Djokovic edged 15th-seeded Wawrinka 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7(5), 12-10 in a momentum-swinging encounter, cashing in on his third match point to reach the quarter-finals for a 15th consecutive major.
The style was reminiscent of his five-hour, 53-minute, five-set final win here last year against Rafael Nadal, only it was 51 minutes shorter.
Djokovic had beaten Wawrinka – the perennial No 2 among Swiss tennis players to 17-time major winner Federer – in their ten previous matches. He hadn’t lost a head-to-head since 2006.
Djokovic said the win “brings back the memories from 12 months ago with Rafa.”
“We are midway through the tournament, but it feels like a final to me.”
Djokovic next lines up against Tomas Berdych, the 2010 Wimbledon finalist who advanced to the quarter-finals for a third consecutive season with a 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (13) win over South Africa’s Kevin Anderson.
Fourth-seeded David Ferrer had a 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 win over No 16 Kei Nishikori of Japan to set up an all-Spanish quarter-final against Nicolas Almagro, who was leading 6-2, 5-1 when No 8 Janko Tipsaveric retired from their fourth-round match.
The late-finishing men’s match almost changed the complexion of the tournament. Critics who questioned if anybody could challenge Djokovic, Federer and US Open champion Andy Murray in the absence of Nadal at this tournament got an answer quickly.
Wawrinka stunned the top-ranked Djokovic with three service breaks in the first set, and led 5-2 in the second before the 25-year-old Serb rallied by winning six consecutive games, but just as Djokovic seemed to be taking control of the match, Wawrinka launched his own comeback to win a long tie-breaker and force a fifth set.
Djokovic got to serve first in the fifth set, giving him a psychological edge as long as he held his serve. In the end, Wawrinka didn’t quite have the big-time experience.
Wawrinka had game point in the 22nd game of the fifth set, but let Djokovic get on a roll. The Swiss saved his first match point with a service winner after four hours, 55 minutes and saved another two minutes later.
Wawrinka was whacking his head with the racket and biting the ball after giving Djokovic another match point. Moments later, he was slumped on the court after netting a backhand.
Djokovic raised both arms, walked to the net and embraced his beaten rival, then pulled of his shirt and flexed – shades of the 2012 final.
“It’s really hard to find the words to describe the feeling,” an exhausted Djokovic said courtside. “He deserved equally to be a winner of this match. I give him a lot of credit. He showed his qualities.
“He was the aggressive player on the court. He was playing well, mixing it up, using the right tactics and serving really well. I was just trying to hang in there and fight and give every drop of energy.”
Wawrinka certainly did not appear overawed by the occasion or the world No 1.
He mixed up the pace of his returns, painted the tramlines and launched ground shots from both wings that had the crowd in Rod Laver Arena ooh-ing, ah-ing and looking at neighbours wondering if what they were watching was real. He broke Djokovic three times to claim the first set 6-1 in 25 minutes and, while he had his serve broken in the first game of the second set, the setback was temporary as he then reeled off the next four games.
Djokovic, who had changed his shoes after the third game of the second set because he was constantly slipping over, however finally held serve at 4-2, which sparked a recovery.
The world No 1 won five of the next six games to take the set 7-5 and level the match, then broke in the first game of the third that produced an almighty roar from the Serb.
While Wawrinka broke back immediately, both players then seemed to take a breath and the match settled down with Djokovic taking greater control of the rallies, reducing Wawrinka’s ability to go for winners and waiting for him to make errors.
The tactic worked as he broke in the ninth game of the third set then held serve to take it 6-4 before the match quickly advanced through the fourth as both held serve until the tie-break, which Wawrinka dominated.
Neither was able to hold his first service game in the fifth set and it then became a case of who would blink first, with Djokovic holding a break point in the eighth game, only for Wawrinka to hold his nerve.
The match then stayed on serve until the 22nd game of the set, when Djokovic held three match points before he finally sealed the win. “It could have gone either way this match and I am thrilled to be through,” Djokovic added. “He had a lot of chances to win this match. All the credit to him, I feel sorry that one of us had to lose.”
A teary Wawrinka was adamant there was nothing more he could have done. “I think it’s by far the best match I ever played, especially in five sets against the No 1 player,” 15th-seed Wawrinka said afterwards as he wiped away tears.
“At the end I was really, really close, so for sure I’m really sad, but I think there is more positive than negative.
“At the end he was still there. He was playing great tennis. We were both tired, but I really fought like a dog.
“For sure I was serving for the second set to be up two sets to love, but in five sets, five hours, you always have some opportunity to win a set or to win the match,” Wawrinka added.
“If you don’t take it, he’s going to take it.”
Despite the defeat, Wawrinka believed the way he had played against Djokovic could spur him on to bigger and better things.
“I think I can use it, I hope I will use it,” he said. “I think it’s important if I want to keep improving myself, my game, to try to come back closer to the top ten.”