Denis a menace, but Novak finds new gear

  • Dan Imhoff

Novak Djokovic’s grip on the world No.1 ranking is assured and his Australian Open favouritism only growing after dismantling a flashy Denis Shapovalov in a third-round showdown on Saturday afternoon.

The top seed was cruising to a straight-sets ledger at Rod Laver Arena before the encroaching afternoon shadows and a momentary drop in intensity allowed the Canadian teenager back into the contest.

But it proved a brief deviation from the tennis lesson the six-time Melbourne champion was dishing out, as he romped home 6-3 6-4 4-6 6-0.

“I just tried to stay in the moment and weather the storm,” Djokovic said of unexpectedly dropping the third set.

“Denis played well toward the end of the third, I made some unforced errors … he showed some quality and showed why he’s going to be one we’ll be seeing in the future.”

Victory meant Djokovic is guaranteed to retain the No.1 ranking until at least after the Australian Open, and it set up a clash with 15th seed Daniil Medvedev for a place in his 10th Australian Open quarterfinal.

“I just stayed solid from the back of the court and served well, played the right shots. For the first two sets, just had things under control,” Djokovic said.

“At 4-1, I was agitated. As I said, should not happen to me. I know better, I have experience. But it does happen, I guess. I allowed him to come back into the match.

“It was important to start off the fourth set well … making that break was crucial for me.”

Throughout the first two-and-a-half sets, Djokovic’s discipline, unparalleled court coverage and measured aggression exposed the gulf in experience between him and his teenage opponent.

A glimpse of Shapovalov’s exceptional shot-making came when he blasted a forehand down the line to end a lengthy rally and rouse a crowd wanting more.

It drew the thumbs-up from the Serb and helped peg back one of the breaks in the opening set.

But for every moment of Shapovalov flashy brilliance, a game later would come back-to-back wildly shanked backhands closer to the rear wall than the baseline.

Djokovic was consistently able to absorb the weight of shot, forcing his opponent to push desperately for more.

It was always going to be finer margins for Shapovalov against such measured aggression.

“He's really baiting me to go for those crazy shots,” Shapovalov said. “Honestly, he's such a smart player because he always does this. He's moving you around, draining you, draining the opponent.

“I think that comes with experience, his knowledge of the game. He knows he doesn't have to go for outright winners if he doesn't need to. That's why he is where he is.”

Djokovic cleverly used this ploy as he threw in a string of slices, which drew the errors and secured a two-set lead.

In complete control, he jumped to a 4-1 lead in the third set, before frustration at the encroaching shadows crept in.

Shapovalov took his chances as his opponent’s level dipped suddenly and from nowhere, snatched the third set on a routine forehand winner.

Unforced errors
33 Novak Djokovic
57 Denis Shapovalov

Scrambling to nip the momentum swing in the bud, Djokovic screeched into back-to-back shots he had no right to retrieve, turning the match quickly back in his favour as he quickly consolidated an early break in the fourth.

There would be no letting up this time as he sprinted to the finish line.

“I like the fact that I was tested because you want to be tested, especially as you are improving, kind of going along in the tournament,” Djokovic said.

“Matches and opponents are going to get tougher.”

If this was Djokovic still improving, it bodes for a tightening of his grip as the man to beat.