Novak sweats his way past tough Tiafoe

  • Matt Trollope

Novak Djokovic has survived a draining encounter against Frances Tiafoe on Tuesday to seal a spot in the third round at Melbourne Park.

The top seed and two-time defending champion was pushed hard by the world No.64, requiring three-and-a-half hours to complete a 6-3 6-7(3) 7-6(2) 6-3 win.

SCOREBOARD: N Djokovic d F Tiafoe

"(A) very tough match. Also difficult conditions. While we had sun on the court, it was very, very warm. A lot of long rallies,” said Djokovic, who is playing for a record-extending ninth AO title.

"I want to give a hand to Frances for a great fight. It was a fantastic match.”

In the first meeting between the pair, Djokovic began sharply, holding at love and then breaking at love to win the first eight straight points, setting the tone for the set.

There were some flashes of brilliance from the American – a searing passing-shot winner here, an athletic backhand volley there – but Djokovic was too steady, slotting a backhand winner up the line to pocket the opener.

But from the second set onwards, the nature of the match changed, and the contrasts between the two competitors become even more stark.

Up one end you had the flashier, yet more erratic Tiafoe, playing with increasingly positive, energetic body language as he worked his way into the contest. Up the other was Djokovic, efficient and methodical yet increasingly listless in the hot weather.

When the set progressed to a tiebreak, Tiafoe rose to the occasion; after scoring a mini-break for a 4-3 lead, he forced a volley error for 5-3, played a drop-shot winner to earn a batch of set points, and converted the first thanks to a powerful backhand return that Djokovic couldn’t control.

f_100221_djokovic_tiafoe_day3_59.jpg
Djokovic and Tiafoe share a lighter moment on Rod Laver Arena
"I want to give a hand to Frances for a great fight. It was a fantastic match."
Novak Djokovic

Djokovic, as is customary, responded strongly, winning 14 of the first 18 points to take a quick 3-0 lead in the third. But the dynamic returned to that of the second set, with Djokovic lapsing into errors and allowing the American back into the contest.

Tiafoe saved a pair of set points in the 10th game, but when the set progressed to a tiebreak, he faltered, opening it with an error and a double fault. After Djokovic sent down consecutive aces for a 4-1 lead, Tiafoe netted a backhand to hand the Serb multiple set points.

Djokovic needed just one, thanks to a forehand winner.

Despite the courts, according to Djokovic, playing quicker than ever, this match felt like a grind. While both men served impeccably – combining for 49 aces – it was not an especially clean performance off the ground from either.

Just a few games into the fourth set, the match had already extended beyond the three-hour mark.

But when that set, too, looked almost certainly headed to a tiebreak, Djokovic snatched a break in the seventh game.

It was like a switch had suddenly flipped. The world No.1 relaxed, swung more freely on his groundstrokes, and began reeling off winners.

He won 11 of the final 13 points – Tiafoe ended the match on a double fault – to reach the third round for the 14th time in his past 15 visits to the tournament.

"The matches are only going to get tougher,” Djokovic said.

“It's not the first time that I'm in this kind of situation. I know how to handle this kind of circumstance. I was fortunate to get through the third set today – it was really anybody's game.”

He will next play either No.27 seed Taylor Fritz or Reilly Opelka for a place in the last 16.