As Djokovic plays in the second week of this tournament, his game is all about first. Line-scraping first serves would give him the first point of his service games. First breaks of his opponent’s serve would become the first boxing, and the first-set win for a player who rarely allowed anyone to break back in a match.
He never lets opponents catch their breath, hammering returns into their jaws and forcing them to hit another shot after they think they’ve won a point. It is a type of tennis of suffocation. American Tommy Ball, who was beaten by Djokovic in the semi-finals, said much of the first set was a blur after it was over. Paul had played tennis all his life, but this time, the seconds between points, between the moment he hit a ball and chased after the next ball, had never passed so quickly.
Andrey Rublev, a Russian player with a formidable forehand and serve, paced the hallway moments before being called to the court. He’s played Djokovic three times before, and beaten him once, but has never faced him on Rod Laver Arena, where he faces a more invincible version of Djokovic across the net than he’s seen in the past.
“He played very well,” Rublev said after it was over. “I don’t know what else to say.”
In the fourth round Alex de Minaur won just five games, playing in front of a hometown crowd ready to cheer him on to battle. After demolishing De Minaur, Djokovic told the Serbian press that playing in Australia against an Australian had triggered him because of what the country’s government had done to him the previous year, detaining and deporting him because of his popularity and his stance against mandatory vaccinations.
But Djokovic’s recovery mission in Australia has been fraught with perils. He strained his hamstring before the match and was forced to take to the court wearing a thick bandage around the injured area until the end. He struggled throughout the first week, playing without the magical movement that is the foundation of his game.
Then, as with many of his previous injuries, a combination of rest, massages, and pain relievers relieved the pain and discomfort when it was most prominent. There was a buzz on social media over whether he had ever suffered a leg injury, with no one questioning the validity of other players’ injuries – a subtle nod to the ever-present Nadal – only his.