MELBOURNE, Australia – Time seemed to stop Sunday evening in Melbourne. Hundreds of fans gathered near the jumbotrons around the grounds at the Australian Open, nearly silent as they watched what was happening on court inside Rod Laver Arena: Gilles Simon was making Novak Djokovic looked like an average player.
Everyone just stared at the screen. "He keeps making the same mistake!" one exclaimed as a Djokovic shot shanked into the wrong side of the net. Where was the untouchable champion who rarely needs more than three sets to move on in the early rounds of a grand slam?
Djokovic built a 30-love advantage on serve at 4-4 in the fourth set, but let Simon battle all the way back to break him. When Simon held serve to force a deciding fifth, the fans seemed to be in Simon's corner.
"I think I lost the fourth set because I lost my calm," Djokovic said later. He jumped to a 5-1 lead in the fifth but again failed to close it out. "Should have used my serve. Haven't done it," he said. Simon broke Djokovic four times in the match.
Finally, after four hours, 32 minutes, Djokovic escaped with a 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win.
As he started his on-court interview afterwards, a fan had a piece of advice: "No more drops shots!" Djokovic stopped speaking, mid sentence. "What was that?" he asked. The fan repeated, "No more drop shots."
Djokovic laughed. "I hate to admit it, but he's absolutely right," he said through a grin. He later added, "It would be interesting to see how many dropshot points I won. It's probably one out of 40, very low percentage. The person who shouted was absolutely right." Djokovic had 100 unforced errors in all, many of them on dropshots.
The win puts him into his 27th consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals. He is now tied with Jimmy Connors on the all-time list of consecutive quarterfinals appearances. He'll face No. 7 Kein Nishikori next.
Asked if he is concerned about his play today, Djokovic again smiled. "Actually it gives me great joy to know that I can't get worse than that, than what I played today."