Novak Djokovic battles extreme heat in quarter-final win over Taylor Fritz

Serbia's Novak Djokovic holds ice packs on his head during his quarter final match against Taylor Fritz of the U.S.
The afternoon heat was unrelenting in Melbourne - Reuters/Issei Kato

Novak Djokovic said he had gone through “a lot of suffering” after showing off his extraordinary stamina yet again on Rod Laver Arena. Facing Taylor Fritz – a man 10 years his junior – Djokovic finished strongly to land a four-set victory in 3hr 45min.

Throughout this gruelling contest, Djokovic spent his changeovers holding bags of ice to his head. Even if the temperature was only moderately high – perhaps 30C – the quality of Fritz’s tennis kept his heart racing, especially in the early stages.

“The icing, ice bags on the head, all over the body, is one of the ways to try to bring the temperature down,” Djokovic explained. “Because you feel you’re trapped in this heat, inside and outside, particularly today.

“Of course I’m proud to overcome the challenge and obstacles, and I’m pleased to win, but it was not enjoyable at all. It was really, yeah, suffering, a lot of suffering in every aspect.”

Fritz has still never beaten Djokovic in nine attempts. But he put up a strong fight on Tuesday, saving the first 15 break points he faced. This is believed to be a unique feat against Djokovic, the world’s most skilful returner.

Three of these break points came in an opening game that lasted a marathon 16 minutes and 25 seconds, featuring nine deuces. That set the tone for an 84-minute opening set, which Djokovic won on a tie-break, only to dip in intensity thereafter.

On a humid evening, both men looked to be moving in slow motion for a while, but their shots remained laser-like in their accuracy. Then, after Fritz levelled at one set all after almost two-and-a-half hours of combat, Djokovic stepped up his level in familiar style. His statistics in the third set – 14 clean winners and just a single unforced error – were otherworldly.

His quality barely dipped in the fourth, reinforcing his status as the runaway favourite to lift an 11th Australian Open on Sunday night. After the match, Fritz was asked whether he had seen any decline in Djokovic’s abilities in the five years since he first encountered him. Fritz replied “He’s just as good as ever.”

Fritz also admitted that he hadn’t been able to keep up with Djokovic’s fitness levels in sets three and four, explaining that his off-season training block had been disrupted by injuries. “I played a really high level for the first two sets,” he said, “and they were physical, tough sets. It was like two-and-a-half hours [for] the two sets. I need to get to the point where I can do that for five hours.”

The length of the match provided problems for the schedulers, who asked the next players due on court – Aryna Sabalenka and Barbora Krejcikova – if they would consider a downgrade to Melbourne Park’s second-string venue, Margaret Court Arena. The women conferred and said that they would move if Fritz extended the match to five sets, but Djokovic’s relatively smooth finish meant that this sacrifice was not required.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic reacts after winning his quarter final match against Taylor Fritz
Djokovic was interviewed on court by Nick Kyrgios after his win - Reuters/Eloisa Lopez

Despite the late-running matches on Rod Laver Arena – which had begun earlier with Coco Gauff’s erratic three-hour win over Marta Kostyuk – there was still time for a matey on-court interview between Djokovic and Nick Kyrgios, who has been commentating for Chanel Nine during this event.

Djokovic was full of warmth towards Kyrgios. Even during the opening set, he stopped at the back of the court, pointed at Kyrgios in the broadcasting booth and blew him a kiss. Then, at the start of the on-court interview, he said “[You’re] looking good in that booth but looking better here, hopefully with a racket in your hand soon.” Kyrgios has played only one match in the last 15 months because of injury.

In a left-field exchange, Kyrgios asked about the tree in the Melbourne Botanical Gardens that Djokovic likes to meditate under. Djokovic replied “I’ll show you the tree. You can’t tell anyone. It’s a big secret. You gotta take off your shoes and climb to the highest point and hang upside down on one of the highest branches for 33 minutes and three seconds. Then you’re gonna win a slam.”

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