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Tuesday 2 September 2014

Djokovic the 'master escapologist' leaves it late

Simon Briggs

Published 21/01/2013 | 05:00

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20 January, 2013: Novak Djokovic celebrates defeating Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland in their men's singles match at the Australian Open. Photo: Reuters

Novak Djokovic has confirmed his status as the marathon man of Melbourne Park. Having finally seen off Stanislas Wawrinka in a punishing duel that lasted five hours, he ripped off his shirt and bared his chest, echoing last year's thrilling victory over Rafael Nadal.

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Perhaps this was not quite as long a match as that 5hr 53min final, but it was equally tense, particularly in the final set. Until that moment, both men had been vulnerable on their own serve, but now both steeled themselves and produced 19 consecutive holds.

Eventually, Djokovic tapped into his instinctive genius to take the spoils on his third match point. The scoreline: 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7, 12-10.

"I haven't played nearly my best and I didn't feel well on the court in terms of rhythm and ball-striking," Djokovic said. "But all credit to him. He was the one in charge. I was passive. But I'm just thrilled to be able to fight once again up to the last moment."

Why is it so difficult to beat a member of the 'Big Four'? It is not just their supreme ball-striking, though that is one factor. It is not just their physical endurance, though that is another. It is the aura they have built up over four or five years of global domination.

Wawrinka was all over Djokovic in the early exchanges, ripping his one-handed backhand like Oddjob throwing that lethal Frisbee. After 55 minutes, the scoreboard read 6-1, 5-2 – which might not have surprised anyone arriving late. Until they worked out that Wawrinka was the man in the lead.

But when Wawrinka served for a two-set lead, the shakes and the wobbles took over, as he started to think about the significance of a victory over the world No 1. Now he started to chip and to slice, to wait for things to happen rather than to make them happen. It was never going to be a successful strategy in this exalted company.

Something similar happened at 4-4 in the final set, when Wawrinka had four break points and fumbled the lot, three of them with unforced errors.

FALTER

As you watched him falter at those critical moments, it only made you admire Lukas Rosol even more for the apparently unthinking way in which he blew Rafael Nadal off the court at Wimbledon last year. But then Rosol is not a conventional player.

As Britain's Jamie Baker explained after losing to Rosol here last week: "He's like a freak show. He doesn't put a ball in court the whole set, but he continues doing the same thing. Any other sane person would change their tactics, but he doesn't and then, sure enough, it happens for him at some point."

The first set was a real collector's item. Not only did Djokovic lose his serve three times, after three previous matches in which he had not been broken at all, but he kept on losing his footing. Normally the best mover on the tour, he was slipping and sliding around as if the court were covered in Vaseline.

At the end of the first set, he sent a member of his team sprinting off to get him a new pair of shoes and once he had pulled them on, there was a new assurance about his footwork.

"I changed the shoes," he said, "but to be honest that's not the reason why I started to do better. I just refocused. I've been in those situations before.

"I was just outplayed by my opponent. He was better on the court for the first hour and a half, no question about it. In these circumstances when you're not playing the way you want to play, you just try to fight and hope for the best."

Indeed, Djokovic has been in those situations many times. He is the master of escapology, a man who often seems to wait until he is in the most desperate of positions before he unleashes his most destructive tennis.

"It's amazing how he does it," said Mats Wilander, a three-time winner of this event.

"When he's in trouble, he says to himself, 'okay, my expectations of winning are zero'. And the chances are you relax and play much better from there.

"Also when a top player is behind, he finds it a much bigger challenge. The motivation goes through the roof."

Wawrinka, the world No 17, did so much to entertain and to impress in this match. He was striking the ball with the fluency and vigour of his Swiss compatriot Roger Federer.

At one point, a backhand drive smashed into the sponsor's sign on the side of the net, cleanly slicing off the letter 'K'. Yet the missed opportunities are bound to haunt him for many weeks to come.

"For sure I was thinking a little bit more," Wawrinka said afterwards, when asked about those lapses. "Maybe I was hoping that he might start to make mistakes and give me the game. But I don't think that was the key to the match. I had some chances to take it. But he was just better."

The final point, a 20-shot rally that ended with a breathtaking backhand pass, summed up the quality of what had gone before. It also delivered Djokovic's 18th straight win at this tournament, at the unearthly hour of 1.40am.

"I guess I'm going to skip the morning hours and stay in bed," he grinned, as he hauled his weary body back to the hotel. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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