Novak Djokovic insists he is fit and fresh to face his old friend and foe Andy Murray in the semifinal of the Australian Open. One must take him at his word but, from a close-up seat on Rod Laver Arena, it looked as if the world No. 1 was suffering big-time as he beat David Ferrer 6-4, 7-6, 6-1.
Earlier Murray had beaten Kei Nishikori, the first Japanese player to reach the quarterfinals of this event in 80 years, 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 and he surely was an interested spectator back at his hotel as Djokovic came through a match that, at one stage, it seemed he might not finish.
Toward the end of the second set, Djokovic, who appeared to be having trouble breathing, pulled up sharply after playing a shot and clutched his left hamstring. There was genuine pain on his face and he walked very gingerly between points for some time afterward. But, during rallies, he ran like a hare.
"It was a sharp pain but it went away," Djokovic said. Sharp pains in the hamstring tend not to go away and the mystery was compounded by the fact that he opted not to call the trainer for a quick examination or rub down at the change over.
He did admit that his nose had been blocked for most of the day and that he was having trouble breathing. "It was very difficult to breathe," he said. "I wasn’t able to get oxygen. And that’s difficult when you are playing somebody like David who hits great shots from both sides and the rallies are five to ten shots every time."
Many were longer and, for the first half hour, these two amazing performers made one great get and strike after another, hitting balls with the kind of power that Rod Laver could never have dreamed of when he was playing. "But we had those little wood rackets," he said with a smile when we were chatting with the great Grand Slammer earlier in the day.
Certainly the rackets and the strings coupled with the hugely improved fitness of today’s players enable them to produce tennis of this bionic standard and they will be at it again in the semifinals when Roger Federer plays Rafael Nadal on Thursday and Djokovic meets Murray the following day.
But the big question remains about the Serb’s health. How bad was that hamstring twinge? How big a problem is the breathing? "I’m not at all concerned about my condition," he insisted. Brave talk. But we will see.
Ferrer was bitterly disappointed because he knew he had blown a great chance of leveling the match at one set all and, had he done so, the match would have been up for grabs. Ferrer broke back early in that second set and again when Djokovic, looking at his vulnerable as he lost the timing on his forehand, served for it.
Then Ferrer led 4-2 in the breaker even though he had made a totally uncharacteristic error on an easy forehand to lose one of those two points. Another bad mistake, so unlike Ferrer, virtually handed the breaker to a relieved Djokovic and, after that, the third set was a formality.
Nishikori made Murray work at the start of their afternoon encounter, which was played in sunshine on a much cooler day. Nishikori showed what a fine ball-striker he is as rallies sent both players flying all over the court and one lasted 42 strokes — just one more than a rally between Murray and Ryan Harrison in the first round. This time Murray won it and, as the match progressed, he began taking control with the smooth accuracy of his groundstrokes off both flanks.
Afterward, Murray said that he had woken up with a stiff neck and felt that it might have affected his serving, which was not as consistent as he would have wanted. He only put 44 percent of his first serves in court but still Nishikori could not break him despite missing break points early on.
"Since the first set of my match with Ryan Harrison I went nine sets, I think, without getting broken," Murray said. "So I’ve been serving well. But I didn’t feel great on my serve today. Don’t know if it was anything to do with my neck. But I’ll work on it tomorrow and get the rhythm back."
Having dropped only one set, Murray says he is feeling fresh. "Hopefully that will be to my advantage going into the weekend," he added. "I’ll have to play a lot of long rallies, for sure, against the guys that are left in the tournament."
No surprise there. It’s the same old gang — three of the greatest players who ever played the game. The stranglehold continues and Ferrer, for one, does not think it will be broken any time soon. "No," he replied when asked if he and the pack below him could break the top four monopoly. "They were in all the Grand Slam finals last year and now they are there again. They are better than the others."