He looked down and out but defending champion Novak Djokovic proved why he’s the world No.1 with a herculean effort on Friday night.
The top seed was evidently physically hampered with a suspected muscle tear, but rallied to edge past American youngster Taylor Fritz 7-6(1) 6-4 3-6 4-6 6-2 on Rod Laver Arena.
The 17-time Grand Slam champion, chasing an unprecedented ninth title at Melbourne Park, will hope to recover sufficiently to take on Canada’s Milos Raonic in the fourth round.
“I just tried to stay in there. I was praying and hoping, whatever is happening there, it would feel better,” explained an exhausted Djokovic.
“Towards the end of the fourth set it improved. The third and fourth sets I don’t know, I just had to go for my shots.
“This is definitely one of the most special wins in my life. It doesn’t matter what round, against who, under these kind of circumstances, to pull this through is something I’ll remember forever.”
Channeling his clinical first-round form, the top seed was forcing Fritz to cover every step along the baseline, racing to 4-1 in 17 minutes.
Flattening out the strokes, top-ranked American Fritz pinned the world No.1 beyond the baseline and an off-kilter Djokovic misfired a brace of forehands wide of the mark to surrender his advantage.
Ever the perfectionist, the eight-time champion was furious to surrender the lead and retaliated in typical fashion in the tie-break.
Fritz rattled a forehand pass dipping over the net, but the elasticity of Djokovic was on full show, gliding to clip a sensational volley cross court from his laces. That set the tone as the world No.1 played a top-drawer selection of seven points.
The computer-game shots kept on coming from Djokovic, chalking up an instant break, ahead of ripping through a 65-second hold for 2-0.
Despite his lead, Djokovic was now struggling with his fluidity and balance.
The flat, sizzling Fritz forehands were doing the damage. In reply, Djokovic went back to basics with relentless strokes, letting out a gladiatorial roar to the stands, fired up after saving a brace of break points for 3-1.
The world No.1 was forced to draw upon on his extensive experience and self-described “muscle memory” of previous Melbourne Park victories.
Fritz locked, loaded and launched every shot at full tilt, but Djokovic escaped with a hold to love for a two sets lead.
Unfortunately, whilst saving more break points, Djokovic slipped and appeared to tweak a muscle in his core. Grimacing after shots and restricted in his movement, the Serbian was unable to absorb the Fritz firepower.
The 23-year-old, who hasn’t reached a major second week yet, looked on course for a monumental shock when he forced a decider with clutch play.
However, as the tennis world knows, never count out Novak.
Somehow, from somewhere, Djokovic found the physical and mental resources to keep competing and darted a bullet forehand down the line to glance the court corner. A sensational shot in the circumstances for a pivotal 4-2 lead.
Moments later, with match point converted, the arms were stretched out, a monster roar booming around, with the release of emotions flooding out after an archetypal dogged Djokovic display.
“I was just trying to focus on what’s going on with an injury. Right now, I know it’s a muscle tear,” admitted the top seed, who has an 11-0 record against Raonic.
“I don’t know if I’ll manage to recover from that in two days. I don’t know if I’m going to step on court or not. I’m just proud of this achievement tonight, let’s see what happens.”