MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic paused his service routine and began aggressively stretching out his left leg. There were just seven points left for him to wrap up his third-round Australian Open match against Grigor Dimitrov, but he was clearly in pain.
Djokovic’s left hamstring has been causing him grief during the first week here in Melbourne. His movement and mobility has been hampered, yet he has dropped just one set en route to the round of 16 as he chases a record-equaling 22nd major title.
His run is proving to be eerily similar to the one in 2021, when he nursed an oblique tear to a ninth Australian Open crown.
On Monday evening, Djokovic will face Australian hope and 22nd seed Alex de Minaur — who matched his best result at his home Slam with a third-round win over Frenchman Benjamin Bonzi — for a spot in the quarterfinals.
Djokovic and de Minaur have never met in professional competition. This first clash, scheduled for primetime on Rod Laver Arena, is set to be a blockbuster encounter.
“Playing in front of you guys, I don’t know how many of you will be on my side. I don’t think too many,” Djokovic said jokingly to the crowd after his win over Dimitrov. “It’s going to be a great atmosphere, I’m sure, and I look forward to it.”
Why Novak Djokovic will win
Djokovic just doesn’t lose on Rod Laver Arena. Scratch that, he doesn’t lose in Australia. The 35-year-old star has won a staggering 37 consecutive singles matches on Australian soil, including three straight Australian Open titles between 2019 and 2021.
He thrives in the conditions and handles the pressure better than anyone else, which gives him a considerable edge over de Minaur, who has played just five career matches on center court at his home Slam for a record of 3-2.
Despite the hamstring concern and playing well below his devastating best, Djokovic has been able to elevate his play in key moments this tournament — a hallmark of his career. After France’s Enzo Couacaud leveled at one set apiece in the second round, Djokovic reeled off 12 of the next 14 games to run away with the match.
Last time out against Dimitrov, Djokovic played his best tennis in the first set tiebreaker, before capitalizing on several break point opportunities later in the match.
Djokovic can also take advantage of de Minaur’s serve, which has let him down so far this tournament. De Minaur wins few cheap points with it, tallying just 21 aces through his first three matches, and has managed to land his first serve only 58% of the time. Injured or not, Djokovic will punish him if he doesn’t improve in this area.
And don’t underestimate the mental side of this matchup. It must be demoralizing for any player, let alone those ranked in the top 30 — such as Dimitrov — to throw everything at an injured Djokovic and still fail to win a set.
Why Alex de Minaur will win
If Djokovic were able to draft a fourth-round opponent, de Minaur would likely be at the bottom of his list.
It’s no secret Djokovic isn’t moving as freely as he’d like or we’ve come to expect, so facing an opponent who he believes is “the quickest player on the tour” will be a significant test for his body.
De Minaur’s game isn’t totally dissimilar to that of Djokovic, built on defense and the ability to force his opponent to play shot after shot and find a way past. He is an extremely disciplined player who won’t make many mistakes. Through his three matches, de Minaur’s opponents have made 49 more unforced errors than him.
Djokovic isn’t consistently hitting through the ball as quickly this fortnight, which means finding winners against de Minaur will likely prove to be a challenge. If he begins to struggle with the hamstring and looks to force the issue, it could play into the Australian player’s hands.
“I’m just going to have to take it to him and not shy away from the occasion,” de Minaur said ahead of the showdown. “I’m going to make sure I make it as tough as I can. I’m not going to read too much into that injury.”
As Djokovic eluded to following his win over Dimitrov, de Minaur will also have the crowd firmly in his corner. The 23-year-old is the last remaining singles hope for the Australian contingent at this year’s tournament.
What will happen?
Picking against Djokovic in Melbourne, no matter how injured he might be, is a fool’s errand. His career record at the Australian Open is 85-8, highlighting just how difficult it’s been to beat him on the blue Plexicushion. De Minaur won’t be easy, though, and is good enough to take a set off him. Djokovic to win in four.