It was not the sort of performance that wins championships – although it did keep him in the tournament – but it was a champion’s performance nonetheless.
Novak Djokovic was not at his best, not by a long shot, and he was facing a young man with heaps of talent, loads of power and absolutely nothing to lose. And somehow Djokovic weathered the storm of the first two sets to beat Hubert Hurkacz 7-5, 6-7, 6-1, 6-4.
At 22, this is Hurkacz’s first year of mixing it with the big boys on the main tour. Until now, he has been learning his trade on the Challenger tour and climbing the rankings ladder. In each of the past four years, he has moved up the greasy pole by 100 places or more until now he stands at No 48 and has entry to all the elite events. And he is a very quick learner.
He stood toe to toe with Djokovic for most of the first set until the yips set in in the 11th game – two double faults contributed to him dropping serve – but then in the second set, he was all over the world No 1 like a rash. A tall man at 6ft 5ins, he has a thumping serve, a backhand that travels like a heat-seeking missile and a remarkable touch when he needs it.
He was also utterly unfazed by the situation. Flinging himself around like a young Boris Becker, he showed a willingness to come forward and attack. Staying put on the baseline, he showed defensive grit in abundance . It was a stunning effort from the Pole.
Only at the start of the third set did his concentration dip – and that was all Djokovic needed. The defending champion grabbed the match by the throat and strangled the life out of Hurkacz’s challenge. But it had been tough. Tougher than Djokovic had wanted.
“I think credit, first of all, to Hurkacz for playing well,” Djokovic said. “He pushed me. He served well. He attacked the ball mid-court. He gave it all and played a great quality match, I thought.
“Obviously, his serve is his greatest weapon. For someone that is as tall as him, he’s moving really well. I thought he was getting some stretch balls that you wouldn’t maybe expect him to get. He was sliding, diving, making some great points. Yeah, it was great performance from his side.”
As for his own frailties yesterday, Djokovic was none too concerned. He had won, after all. But his serve was not particularly solid – he served eight double faults – and time and again, he missed break- point chances. For the master of the service return and one of the best defensive players on the circuit, he was looking a little shaky.
“I think I should have capitalised on my opportunities also in the second set,” he said. “I wasn’t really on top of his second serve. I was a bit hesitant, which wasn’t the case in the first two matches.
“But I think third set was great. Fourth set, as well, very solid. I’m really pleased with the way I finished the match.”
Standing between Djokovic and the quarter-finals is Ugo Humbert of France. The world No 66 stopped Felix Auger-Aliassime in his tracks 6-4, 7-5, 6-3. The Canadian, seeded No 19, was supposed to be the favourite in that encounter, but the 21-year-old Frenchman never gave him so much as a toehold in the match. Any hint that Auger-Aliassime was mounting a challenge and Humbert slapped him down again.
“He has a big serve, very explosive, very dynamic player,” Djokovic said. “He’s tall. Has a big game from back of the court. Flat backhand, very solid. He can play anything really.
“He has the really good slide serve wide. He uses that. He uses his height very well. He’s got a good technique. He’s one of the leaders of the next generation with Felix and Hurkacz.
“It’s great. I think it’s great for tennis to have the young guys doing so well, showing the quality of the tennis they possess, but also showing the dedication, commitment, confidence they’re able to play on the big stage, challenge the best players in the world.”