“You could say there’s something extra this year, yeah.” After his demolition of Andrey Rublev, it’s looking more and more likely that Nole will get it
“The only chance I have is if I play my best tennis,” Andrey Rublev said before his Australian Open quarterfinal with Novak Djokovic last Wednesday night. “Just fight for every ball, and that’s it. That’s the only chance.”
When the time came to get on court with Djokovic, though, Rublev seemed to have lost his belief even in that one chance. Instead of coming out firing, and fighting, and attacking, and taking the match to his living-legend opponent, the way underdogs know they must do in these situations, Rublev came out flat. He showed no emotion. With the wind kicking up around him, he looked hesitant to fully go after his ground strokes, the way he usually does. When he double faulted at 1-2, the match seemed all but over, and it was only 15 minutes old.
They say the best players begin a match already up a break, on reputation alone. It felt like Djokovic started this match already up two sets to love. It wasn’t just the fact that he is a nine-time Australian Open champion, or the fact that he has played the best tennis of anyone on the men’s tour since the US Open. It was also that Rublev’s biggest weakness, his second serve, fed right into Djokovic’s biggest strength, his return. Rublev typically does little more than kick the ball into the centre of the box, and hope that his opponent doesn’t do too much damage with his response. That’s a forlorn hope against Djokovic. When Rublev tried to put something extra on his second ball, the result was that double fault at break point.
The differences between the two players went well beyond the serve and return. Djokovic’s 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 win was ultimately a reminder of just how many things he does well.
When he was down in his service games, he inevitably came up with a service winner; he faced five break points and saved them all. When he was pressed in a rally, he had the ability to take pace off the ball, float it high, and restart the point, something that doesn’t come naturally to Rublev. When Rublev failed to put away an easy overhead, Djokovic had the hand skills to improvise on the spot and bunt the ball back a few inches over the net, in the worst possible position for Rublev to hit his next shot. At times, Djokovic raged at the high winds around him-he had to find something to get fired up about-but he was able to handle the breeze by adding extra topspin to his forehand, something that Rublev also had trouble doing.
“Last two matches,” Djokovic said, referring to his one-sided wins over Rublev and Alex De Minaur, “playing against two guys that are really good players, in-form players, to beat them dominantly in three sets is something that’s definitely something that I want in this moment, something that sends a message to all my opponents remaining in the draw.”
Djokovic played this match with his left leg strapped, but nothing slowed him down. The events of last year, the hamstring injury he carried through the first week; he seems to have put them both behind him. But they still serve as motivation.
“You could say that there is something extra this year, yeah,” Djokovic says. “You could say because, yeah, as you mentioned, the injury, what happened last year. I just wanted to really do well.”
This year’s Australian Open isn’t the Novak Djokovic revenge tour. He just wants his title back. It’s looking more and more likely that he’s going to get it. –Tennis.com