Leave it to Novak Djokovic to be involved in another dramatic spectacle. In one of the most thrilling contests played at Melbourne Park in the past decade, the two-time defending champion edged an inspired Stanislas Wawrinka 1-6 7-5 6-4 6-7(5) 12-10 in a five hour and two minute marathon to move into the quarterfinals.
It was a heroic effort by both men in front of a packed Rod Laver Arena that ended at 1.41am on Monday morning. The top seed managed to repel the pumped-up Swiss, who dictated play for much of the match with brilliant shot-making.
But while Wawrinka wowed the spectators with his wondrous one-handed backhand, booming serves and rolling topspin forehands, it was Djokovic who once again dug deep on the court where he has had the most success.
“Well, I'm just pleased to be part of that era, just pleased to be part of those matches where you push yourself up to the last drop of your energy,” Djokovic said.
“I'm very glad to be a winner of another marathon.”
In winning his third Australian Open last year, the strong-legged Serbian won back-to-back five-setters in the semifinals over Andy Murray and in the final over Rafael Nadal. But those were against two of his primary rivals in the sport, and not against a man who has tried so hard to transform himself into an elite player.
On Sunday night and Monday morning in Melbourne, Wawrinka was that elite player, and deserved just as much attention as his more famous countryman, Roger Federer.
“I always knew he has a quality,” Djokovic said.
“He has ability to beat the best players in the world, and he has proven that on several occasions on different surfaces. He's using that power and the serve. He's really moving well over the court. He's reading the game. So he came up with great tactics today.”
Even though he played a brilliant first set, Wawrinka could not consolidate a 5-2 lead in the second set and keep his foot on Djokovic’s throat. But he did not collapse after losing five straight games to drop the second set and then when he lost the third.
Wawrinka, who held a 2-11 record against the Serbian entering the match, punched his way into the fourth set tiebreaker, and even though Djokovic came hard when down 3-6 by ripping two forehand winners, Wawrinka stood tall and won it with a whipping forehand of his own down the line.
The two knew going into the fifth set that they would have to push their bodies to the limits and beyond, and they did so. Wawrinka cramped on and off throughout the set and had an opportunity when he was ahead 4-3 and held four break points, but Djokovic pulled off a sweet drop shot, Wawrinka made two groundstroke errors and the Serbian then put away a backhand volley.
There would be no more break points after that until the 16-point final game, when Wawrinka fought off two match points, the first with a 200km/h ace and the second with an incredible backhand down the line when it looked like he was barely moving. But on the final point, Wawrinka pushed Djokovic all over the court and looked like he was going to win the point when he forced Djokovic to stab back two backhands, but after he hit a low slice approach shot, Djokovic somehow scooped it up and flipped a backhand crosscourt pass to win the contest. The final set alone lasted an hour and 44 minutes.
“I think it's by far my best match I ever play, especially in five sets against the No. 1 player,” said the 15th-seeded Wawrinka.
“Especially I was dealing with myself all the five hours, trying to always find solutions, trying to always fight against me and against him to stay with him. At the end I was really, really close. For sure I'm really sad. But I think there is more positive than negative.”
The two warmly embraced at the net before Djokovic tore his shirt off and roared to his box, just like he did when he bested Nadal last year in their five hour and 53 minute classic.
“I just had flashback of 2012 in the finals,” Djokovic said. “It was maybe 45 minutes less this match than the one 12 months ago, but still it was still as exciting. I tried to perform my best, enjoy the moment, be in the present, and couldn't ask for more. What a match point. Unbelievable.”
Djokovic will play fifth-seeded Czech Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals, and believes he’s in good enough shape to make another title run.
“I’ve been in those situations before,” he said.
“I remember when I won against Murray in the semis after five hours, and then played against Rafa almost six hours. I know I can recover. I know I have it in me.”