“It’s tennis as played by The Terminator,” the US sports writer Eric Freeman once wrote of Novak Djokovic. “He absolutely will not stop – ever – until the opposition is dead.” The original Terminator, of course, ended up being crushed in a hydraulic press. On Tuesday night, his Serbian incarnation made a slightly less gruesome, though equally memorable exit.
Heading into the quarter-final clash with Stanislas Wawrinka, Djokovic had racked up 28 straight wins since losing to Nadal in New York. This retriever par excellence and the man with no discernable weakness was installed as an odds-on favourite to make it four Australian Opens in a row.
The funny thing is, his 28-year-old Swiss opponent would have fancied his chances. Their clashes at last year’s Australian and US Opens were regarded as two of the best matches of the year. Though he went down 12-10 in the fifth in Melbourne, it kick-started what proved to be a stellar 2013 for Wawrinka, which saw him ascend to the top 10.
On the flipside, Stan, a late bloomer, hadn’t beaten him in seven years. The last time he won, the Serb actually retired from the match, not an uncommon occurrence back in the day. Indeed, Djokovic was often dismissed as a bit of a flaker – a bit too inclined to call for the trainer and a bit suspect when the wick was turned up. Of course, he ditched gluten from his diet, stepped up his training, ironed out a few psychological chinks and turned himself into the relentless machine we now see before us. He even employed Boris Becker to toughen him up mentally, a curious choice to anyone familiar with the German’s Twitter account.
Warwinka was cramping up and Djokovic was cracking up. A brief rain delay only added to the tension.
Right from the get-go, Djokovic was in murderous touch. His ability to find the lines, to chase down the seemingly irretrievable and to set the agenda on every point was immediately apparent. Unlike Federer’s exhibition the night before, this was more of a demolition. His opponent, meanwhile, was double faulting, missing gimme smashes and flinging his racket in disgust. 6-2 down in the opening set, he looked shot. The backhand that John McEnroe described as the best he has ever seen was deserting him and he was repeatedly left flat-footed.
But the sluggish Swiss finally got moving. At 3-3 and 30-40 on Djokovic’s serve, a lengthy rally ensued, with the pair trading backcourt artillery shells before the Swiss spanked an obscene off-backhand to go up 4-3 and a break. He held his nerve to serve it out and square things up. Djokovic, seemingly unbeatable just half an hour before, had suddenly dropped his first set of the tournament.
His wobbles continued. When Wawrinka broke again early in the third, it was mainly a case of Djokovic fluffing his lines and gifting his opponent points with unforced errors. When he broke again, however, he had completely turned the match on its head. He was out-serving, outthinking, outgunning and – incredibly – outrunning The Terminator. Djokovic screamed in vain at Becker, who had his red head in his hands. No-one – least of all Boom-Boom – could have imagined such a dramatic shift in momentum.
The decisive game in the following set was the eighth. Wawrinka held a 40-0 lead, but Djokovic won the next five points, including an astonishing return of a wide first serve that just plopped in. His bellicose roar said it all as he took it to a deciding fifth set.
With a break point at 1-1, Djokovic pounded and pounded Wawrinka’s sublime backhand, before abruptly shifting attention to the vacant forehand court to break. Stuff you, said the Swiss, who immediately broke back. An excruciating string of service holds – most of which went to deuce – then ensued. Warwinka was cramping up and Djokovic was cracking up. A brief rain delay only added to the tension.
Then, at 8-7, the unthinkable became reality. Fighting to save match point, Djokovic sprayed the simplest of forehand volleys. The indestructible and indefatigable Serb had been worn down and psyched out. Wawrinka had won one of the most memorable matches in Australia in recent years. Against all prevailing thought, he had ground The Terminator to a halt.
The Swiss will now meet Tomas Berdych, who defeated third seed David Ferrer in four sets. Two sets to the worse, the Spaniard was in a filthy mood and at one stage got in an altercation with a line judge. Though not exactly the most compelling of players, Ferrer is a classic grinder and fond of a five set slog. When he calmed down to win the third, a marathon beckoned. But the 2010 Wimbledon finalist Berdych held firm to advance to his first ever Australian Open semi-final.
Bouchard has proved a welcome breath of fresh air in Melbourne.
Earlier, Canadian Eugenie Bouchard’s dream run continued when she rolled Ana Ivanovic. Bouchard, who won 19 out of 24 points at the net, has proved a welcome breath of fresh air in Melbourne. Though it’s just her fourth Grand Slam, she had beaten the Serb at Wimbledon and now repeated the dose, breaking her serve seven times. Next on the menu is Li Na, who barely raised a sweat in seeing off fellow 32-year-old Flavia Pennetta.