Monday 20 November 2017

Djokovic lives dangerously against Simon to stay on track for Federer

Novak Djokovic, right, shakes hands with Gilles Simon of France after winning their fourth round match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne. Photo: Vincent Thian/AP
Novak Djokovic, right, shakes hands with Gilles Simon of France after winning their fourth round match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne. Photo: Vincent Thian/AP

Paul Newman

Novak Djokovic is through to his 27th consecutive Grand Slam quarter-final, but another statistic dominated the world No 1's thoughts after his 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 victory over Gilles Simon in the Australian Open.

Djokovic is renowned for his ruthless efficiency and consistent ball-striking, but on this occasion the Serb made 100 unforced errors during the four hours and 32 minutes he was kept out on court.

"I don't think I've made anywhere close to 100 before," a relieved Djokovic said. "It actually gives me great joy to know that I can't get worse than what I played today."

Simon, the world No 15, is one of the game's most dogged retrievers. Although the 31-year-old Frenchman lacks the power of the very best players, he can frustrate them with his ability to keep making opponents hit the extra ball. There were times, especially at the end of the second and fourth sets, when Djokovic appeared to run out of both energy and ideas as he hit a succession of drop shots, nearly all of which Simon got back.

Brain freeze

"It's not easy when you're not feeling the ball well and when you're not moving that great," Djokovic said. "When you're playing someone like Simon, he senses that and he makes you play an extra shot. Then you're trying to cut down on the length of the rallies, go for a winner or go for a drop shot. Sometimes you have a brain freeze, if I can call it that way."

If there was a positive for Djokovic other than the simple fact that he won it was the quality of his serving. In the final set in particular he served consistently well.

Djokovic - who has lost only one match in the last five months and has reached the final of every tournament he has played since the first week of last year - was making unforced errors from the start, spraying the ball around. Simon simply kept the rallies going as long as possible until Djokovic made a mistake.

"I feel players don't always play their best when they play Novak," Simon said. "At the start Novak is playing fantastic and the match is over after 20 minutes. I just try to do my best, point after point, minute after minute."

Simon said the match finally changed when he was serving at 1-2 and 40-15 in the deciding set. "From that moment he only hit good shots all the way until he was leading 5-1. He was hitting the ball harder. He took more risks and the balls were staying in. He hit a lot of lines and was very aggressive. He definitely played better in the end."

Kei Nishikori, who beat Djokovic in the semi-finals of the 2014 US Open, will be his quarter-final opponent tomorrow, by which time the Serb will expect to have recovered his energy levels.

"I've had worse situations where I had much less time to recover after long matches, so I'm sure I'll be fine," he said.

In reaching his 27th consecutive Grand Slam quarter-final Djokovic matched the record of Jimmy Connors. They are joint second in the Open era list behind Roger Federer, who holds the record with 37.

Djokovic, who is aiming to win his sixth Australian Open, is through to the quarter-finals for the ninth year in a row, though here too he still trails Federer, who reached 11 consecutive quarter-finals between 2004 and 2014 and yesterday reached his 12th in total.

Federer's fourth-round victory was in complete contrast to Djokovic's as the world No 3 beat David Goffin 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 in just 88 minutes. The Swiss now faces Tomas Berdych.

Maria Sharapova is entitled to wonder if she will ever beat Serena Williams again. The 28-year-old Russian won two of her first three meetings with Williams - most famously at the age of 17 in the 2004 Wimbledon final - but has since lost to her 17 times in succession.

Since 2008, the two most high-profile women in the game have met 13 times, with Sharapova winning just one set. Their meeting in last year's Australian Open final was one of their closer encounters, but the outcome was just the same.

Sharapova will attempt to avoid her 18th successive defeat to the world No 1 when they meet in the quarter-finals in Melbourne tomorrow. In their fourth-round matches yesterday, Williams crushed Russia's Margarita Gasparyan 6-2, 6-1, while Sharapova held off the challenge of Belinda Bencic, the game's most exciting teenager, to win 7-5, 7-5.

If Sharapova has any reason for optimism it will be the improvement in her serve. She remodelled her action following shoulder surgery but there have been times when she made far too many double-faults. She hit seven against Bencic, but that was more than compensated by her total of 21 aces, the most she has ever hit in a match.

"That's something I have been working on a lot," Sharapova said. "I have gone through many different motions to try to find my groove again and something that would hold up over many matches."

Asked about the challenge of facing Williams, she said: "There is no reason I shouldn't be looking to improve and to getting my game in a better position than any other previous round. It's only going to be tougher, especially against Serena."

Williams has won her last three matches for the loss of just eight games. The knee injury which forced her to withdraw from her only warm-up tournament at the Hopman Cup without completing a match is a rapidly fading memory. Despite her remarkable domination over Sharapova, Williams said she would be taking nothing for granted. (© Independent News Service)

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