MELBOURNE: Britain’s Andy Murray reaches for a return to Roberto Bautista-Agut of Spain during their third-round match at the Australian Open on Saturday.—Reuters
MELBOURNE: Britain’s Andy Murray reaches for a return to Roberto Bautista-Agut of Spain during their third-round match at the Australian Open on Saturday.—Reuters

MELBOURNE: A creaking Novak Djokovic, hampered by a hamstring problem that threatens his quest for a 10th Australian Open crown and 22nd Grand Slam, soldiered on into round four on Saturday after a scintillating 7-6 (9-7), 6-3, 6-4 victory over Grigor Dimitrov.

Djokovic had his left thigh looked at by the trainer after a tight opening set where he was pushed to the limit and, though he came through the next comfortably and his movement improved, the groans grew louder with every point in the third.

“I didn’t know how I was going to feel physically, I was kind of going up and down,” said Djokovic, who staved off a late comeback attempt by Dimitrov to prevail and is now the only remaining Grand Slam champion in a depleted men’s draw.

“I thought the double break in the third was going to be enough for me, but he was locked in from that moment and up to the last shot I did not know if I was going to prevail or not. It was an incredible battle — three sets over three hours.”

Dimitrov’s late surge as he searched in vain for only a second win over Djokovic in their 11th meeting will have left the Serbian wondering how much longer his injured hamstring will hold up as he prepares to take on 23-year-old Alex de Minaur.

Asked about younger rivals fourth seed Djokovic said: “What do you mean the young ones? 35 is the new 25, you know? Look at Rafa (Nadal), look at Andy Murray they’re all playing at an extremely high level.”

However, Murray’s run ground to a halt against Roberto Bautista Agut, the 24th-seeded Spaniard fending off the former world number one 6-1, 6-7 (7-9), 6-3, 6-4 and next faces unseeded Tommy Paul of the United States.

“My feet didn’t feel great. My legs were actually okay […] but I was struggling with my lower back,” the 35-year-old Murray, who came through a five-set epic against Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis in the previous round, told reporters. “That was affecting my serve and that was really the main thing today.”

Australian De Minaur stepped out of Nick Kyrgios’s shadow and ensured home fans will have someone to cheer in the second week as he steamrollered Frenchman Benjamin Bonzi 7-6 (7-0), 6-2, 6-1 in front of a heaving centre court crowd.

“To see a packed Rod Laver Arena was pretty special, you know, all having my back,” the 22nd seed said. “It’s one of those moments where you’ve just got to pinch yourself and stay in the moment.”

Also in the men’s draw, fifth seed Andrey Rublev surged into a clash with Holger Rune — then thanked his beaten opponent Dan Evans for giving him a banana mid-match.

The Russian crushed the Briton 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 to make the fourth round for a third time.

He will face Danish teenager Rune for a place in the quarter-finals after the ninth seed survived a nasty fall to sweep past unseeded Frenchman Ugo Humbert 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (7-5).

His friend and 25th seed Evans threw a banana to Rublev at a changeover when he ran out.

“I didn’t ask him, I asked the ball boy, but Danny asked for bananas earlier and he had two so he just said ‘take it’, and I caught it,” said Rublev.

In two all-American matches, Jeffrey Wolf strolled past Michael Mmoh in three sets while Paul made equally light work of Jenson Brooksby.

OMINOUS SABALENKA

 Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka hits a return against Belgium’s Elise Mertens during their women’s singles match on day six of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on Jan 21. — AFP
Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka hits a return against Belgium’s Elise Mertens during their women’s singles match on day six of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on Jan 21. — AFP

Hard-hitting Aryna Sabalenka meanwhile burnished her title credentials as she barrelled through, along with several other women’s seeds.

Sabalenka is building a head of steam in her pursuit of a first Grand Slam title.

The Belarusian fifth seed blew away 26th-seeded Elise Mertens 6-2, 6-3 to set up a clash with Olympic champion Belinda Bencic.

Thirtieth seed Karolina Pliskova and 23rd seed Zhang Shuai also went through in straight sets on day six at Melbourne Park and will clash in the fourth round.

Sabalenka is trying not to get carried away. The Minsk-born 24-year-old teased the Margaret Court Arena crowd for supporting Belgium’s Mertens over her but said she was enjoying the ride into the second week.

“About the favourite, that I am on that favourite list… I mean, it’s really good that I’m there,” said the Belarusian, who is yet to drop a set. “But I better focus on myself, on my game [and] make sure that my dream will happen.”

Bencic has also not dropped a set in Melbourne. The Swiss 12th seed eased past unseeded Italian Camila Giorgi 6-2, 7-5.

Also into the fourth round is the 17-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova, who beat her fellow Czech Marketa Vondrousova in three sets. She faces Donna Vekic of Croatia, a 6-2 6-2 winner over Spain’s Nuria Parrizas Diaz.

“It feels pretty surreal,” the teenager told reporters. “It’s an incredible feeling. I’m just so happy and excited to be able to say: ‘Hi second week!’”

French fourth seed Caroline Garcia fought back after a disastrous first set to beat world number 158 Laura Siegemund 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2023

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