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HAMSTRING VS THE FIELD



We’re nearly in the second week of the Australian Open and one thing has become abundantly clear. The biggest threat to Novak Djokovic’s quest for a tenth Australian Open title is his left hamstring.

Despite having made it through to the fourth round to face Alex de Minaur on Monday, Djokovic has not been himself on court. He is visibly bothered by his hamstring and is clearly towing a fine line between pain management and tearing this thing off the bone. When defending, Djokovic’s bread and butter, the Serbian is often seen wincing in pain.

Speaking after his three-set win over Grigor Dimitrov, Djokovic conceded he is having difficulty managing the pain while on the court.

“Well, it kind of always starts well in the last few matches, including this one, and then some movement happens and then it gets worse,” Djokovic said.

“Yeah, pills kick in, some hot cream and stuff. That works for a little bit, then it doesn't, then work again. It's really a roller coaster, honestly.

“But it is what it is. It's kind of a circumstance that you have to accept.

“The second match I struggled a lot. I had a couple of moments where it was really bad. Today, as well.

“But I managed to, as I said, survive and kind of pull it through. I'll take it match by match. I don't know what awaits, but I do hope and I have faith for the best.”

Luckily for Djokovic, his 80% is still better than nearly every player on tour. Especially on Rod Laver Arena; as is evidenced by the fact he’s still only dropped one set through three rounds.

To say that Novak’s biggest obstacle is himself is not an understatement.

Novak is often his own worst enemy and while this battle is not one of his own making, it often is that only he can stop himself. To illustrate, on three occasions in recent memory, it was Djokovic that stopped Djokovic from winning a slam.

At the 2020 US Open, he hit a line judge with a stray ball and was disqualified; in 2022 his vaccine stance rendered the Serbian ineligible from competing at the Australian and US Opens.

Of the six other grand slams since the 2020 US Open, Djokovic has won four of them. Of the two others, one was a predictable Nadal triumph at Roland Garros – nothing unusual about that. In the other, Novak succumbed to the weight of history attempting to become the first man since Rod Laver to win a (calendar) Grand Slam in an uncharacteristic loss in the 2021 US Open final.


Of those remaining only Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas has made a grand slam final – which itself resulted in Djokovic clinching victory after being down two sets to none. Novak has reached 32.

Accordingly, if Novak isn’t to win this year. Who (or what) will stop him? His hamstring or the field?

With the bottom quarter wide open, Djokovic’s biggest tests are likely to come in his next two rounds.

Monday night’s opponent, Alex de Minaur would ordinarily be considered to lack the weaponry to trouble Djokovic. However, with the demon’s exceptional movement and a home crowd, Djokovic knows he will need to bring his best, but is confident he is up to the task.

“Of course, it's a big challenge of playing an Aussie guy here in front of his home crowd. I'm sure that the atmosphere will be electric, and he's going to have a lot of support”, Djokovic said.

“The fact that I never faced him is also challenging for both me and him.

“I think we don't know much about each other's games, but still we know each other pretty well because he's been around for quite a few years. I've watched him play numerous times. I know how he plays.”

One of Holger Rune or Andrey Rublev will follow.

Rune, who defeated Djokovic in the Paris Masters final in November last year and is improving at the rate of knots, will enter the Rublev match as favourite. While the Dane would no doubt be a worthy challenger, he has had his own physical issues often succumbing to cramps during the longer matches of his young career.

Rublev, who typically excels in the best-of-three-set format, while more experienced and looking refreshed at this year’s event, would have to overcome his own demons to take down Djokovic, having never been past the quarter-finals of a grand slam in six attempts.

Likely awaiting Djokovic in any final would be Jannik Sinner, Stefanos Tsitsipas, or Felix Auger-Aliassime.

Third-seed Stefanos Tsitsipas would appear as Djokovic’s most worthy challenger on paper. While flying under the radar to date, Tsitsipas has started the year without loss through seven singles matches and has made the semi-finals in three of the last four Australian Opens.

However, Djokovic has won his last eight encounters against the Greek which includes that miraculous comeback in the 2021 French Open final that left Tsitsipas a shell of the player he was for the remainder of that year.

The prodigiously talented Jannik Sinner, whose coaching team now boasts unofficial kingmaker Darren Cahill, has a 0-2 record against the Serbian which includes relinquishing a two-set-to-none lead against Djokovic at Wimbledon in 2022. Sinner will also need to get through Tsitsipas in the fourth round who clinically dismantled the Italian at Melbourne Park in 2022.

Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, who is often dubbed ‘the chosen one’ by Taylor Fritz and has one of the best serves on tour, defeated Djokovic at the Laver Cup in London last September to avenge a straight sets loss in Rome earlier that year. Although time may catch up to Auger-Aliassime who has already spent nearly ten hours on court having dropped five sets through three matches.

In sum, you wouldn’t back any of the field to take down a fully fit Djokovic in his house of pain.

Taking on Djokovic in a best-of-five set tennis is a different beast altogether. Especially when the Serb believes his back is against the wall.

His experience is unmatched and we’ve seen many a member of the ‘next gen’ crumble when taking on a member of the big three in a slam final.

Riding a 37-match win streak in Australia – which includes his last 24 at Melbourne Park – if someone or something is to take down Djokovic; this writer would back the hamstring, not the field.


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