Novak Djokovic says the furnace conditions at the Australian Open were right on the limit as he won a survival of the fittest battle with Gael Monfils to reach the third round on Thursday.
The six-time champion staggered over the finish line to stretch his unbeaten record over Monfils to 15-0, one of the longest at Tour level, after dropping the opening set.
Djokovic, playing in his first tournament for six months after an elbow injury, just did enough at the end to carve out a 4-6, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 win in 2hr 45min on baking Rod Laver Arena.
The 12-time Grand Slam champion has a day to recover for his third round encounter with Spanish 21st seed Albert Ramos-Vinolas.
Playing conditions were described as brutal as temperatures hovered around 40°C, prompting Djokovic to say a safety limit had been reached for the players.
“People might say at this level you have to be as a professional tennis player fit,” Djokovic said.
“It’s the beginning of the season. You work and train hard to be able to sustain these kind of conditions, to be tough.
“But I think there is a limit, and that is a level of tolerance between being fit and being, I think, in danger in terms of health. It was right at the limit.”
The extreme elements made it a desperate struggle just to finish the match with Monfils looking the worse for wear early before Djokovic had enough in the tank to win on his fourth match point in a gruelling eight-minute final game.
“It was brutal conditions and we both suffered, it was a big challenge for both of us,” Djokovic said.
“Gael is one of the best athletes in our sport but he was not at his best in the second and third sets. It was about just hanging in there and try to use every opportunity.”
Asked about the state of his right elbow, Djokovic added: “It’s still not 100 per cent, but it’s building. I have a lot of faith and belief in what I am capable of.”
GASPING FOR BREATH
It was another step forward for the Serbian former world number one, who has been working his way back with a remodelled serve after elbow problems.
A decade after winning his first Melbourne Park title Djokovic has slipped to 14 in the world, his lowest in 10 years, but he has survived the opening two rounds in his comeback Grand Slam.
Monfils, who was often hunched over gasping for air in between points, said it was the hardest match he had played.
“It was tough to breathe. Yeah, I think it was the hardest (match) I have,” Monfils said.
“No matter how much you train in the heat, how much you like the heat, it’s very tough, maybe a little bit too hot.”
Monfils added: “I got super dizzy. I think I had a small heat stroke out there.
“I trained this winter in Miami. Was pretty hot. I thought I was very good. I’m telling you, I was dying on the court for 40 minutes.”
Djokovic, showing the effects of the struggle, fended off Monfils’ renewed late effort and the Serb needed his fourth match point to claim victory.
Women’s third seed Garbine Muguruza one of those who suffered due to the conditions on Thursday, crashing out in straight sets.
“I think the surface of the court, I don’t know how much heat, it’s terrible, very, very hot, and it’s easy to get blisters and red,” she said.
“I had a more tougher match under the heat in previous years at the Australian Open, but today was — it was hot, but I don’t think was the hottest day.”
French eighth seed Garcia spent three gruelling sets in the sun against Marketa Vondrousova before limping to a 6-7 (3), 6-2, 8-6 victory.
“It’s definitely hot,” she said afterwards. “My feet are burning. But we know it’s like this in Australia — the next day it can be freezing.”
The conditions present the ultimate test of fitness and stamina, with organisers only activating the extreme heat policy when the temperature exceeds 40 Celsius and the wet bulb globe temperature index hits 32.5°C.
Tournament organisers said they had been “close” to calling a halt to play and shutting the main stadiums roofs.
Maria Sharapova was untroubled by the heat, although she was on court in the morning and avoided the worst of it.
“I love the summertime,” she said breezily after dispatching 14th seed Anastasija Sevastova in straight sets.
Players are urged to keep themselves hydrated and use ice wrapped in towels to cool off at changeovers in the draining weather.
Fifth seed Thiem took the advice to heart as he struggled through a energy-sapping five-setter against Denis Kudla.
“I’m off to have an ice bath,” was all he managed to say after the marathon match.
A cooler change is expected to blow through Melbourne from Saturday.
Maria Sharapova is relishing a potential meeting against 2016 champion Angelique Kerber in the third round of the Australian Open following her 6-1, 7-6 (4) victory over 14th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova on Thursday.
Sharapova, unseeded in Melbourne as she continues to build back her ranking following her doping suspension, overcame sweltering conditions that neared 40°C and an opponent that ended her US Open campaign in the fourth round last year.
The Russian ex-world No. 1 fired 30 winners and won 82 per cent of the points on her first serve in a tough 80-minute victory.
She faces two-time Grand Slam champion Kerber in the third round, after the German eased past Donna Vekic 6-4, 6-1.
“I came in with no ranking. I’m around 50 in the world at this point, so I know I’m going to be facing seeded players, first, second, third round. She just happens to be the next one that’s in the draw that I have to play,” said Sharapova when asked if she felt it was too early in the draw to face someone of Kerber’s calibre.
“As I said before, I look forward to these matches. I want to be playing against opponents that have former Grand Slam champions. She’s had success here. She’s had success playing out here in these conditions on these courts. I want to see where I am on that level.”
“Walking through that tunnel is extremely special…it gives me the motivation that I can do it again.”
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 18, 2018
Sharapova, appearing at the Australian Open this year for the first time since she failed a drugs test at the tournament in 2016, celebrated her second round success against Sevastova with so much passion and fire and the 30-year-old admits she missed competing at the event last season.
“I was watching this tournament with a box of Kleenex next to me sick. So, you know, I feel like I transported myself into the TV this year and I’m finding myself on Rod Laver Arena competing. A lot of things to smile about,” explained Sharapova, a champion in Melbourne in 2008.
“I wanted to be here. I got myself here. Yeah, it’s great to be back.
She added: “I had really tough matches against her. Despite winning our last match, I faced two match points and barely got through that one, 7-6 in the third.
“It’s a warm day. I did my job in two sets against someone that’s been troubling in the past for me. So third round of the Australian Open, I don’t know, I think I deserve to smile out there after that victory.”
On a day marked by heroic comebacks and epic collapses, most of the players who pulled off upsets in the first round crashed out of the Australian Open in the second round — with Kyle Edmund and Marta Kostyuk among the few exceptions.
Belinda Bencic (beat Venus Williams in R1), Zhang Shuai (beat Sloane Stephens in R1), Yuichi Sugita (beat Jack Sock in R1), Timea Babos (beat Coco Vandeweghe in R1) and Ruben Bemelmans (beat Lucas Pouille in R1) all failed to back up their wins from the opening round and were sent packing.
Here’s a look at the highs and lows of day three at Melbourne Park…
HERO OF THE DAY
Caroline Wozniacki climbed back from 1-5 down in the final set against Croatian Jana Fett, saving two match points along the way, to advance to the third round. A gritty performance from the No. 2 seed. Remember when Angelique Kerber saved a match point in her Australian Open first round then went on to win the title in 2016? Could this be a defining moment in Wozniacki’s quest for a maiden Grand Slam title? Time will tell!
— Caroline Wozniacki (@CaroWozniacki) January 17, 2018
COLLAPSE OF THE DAY
Daria Gavrilova squandered eight set points at 5-0 up and somehow ended up losing the opening set, 5-7 to Elise Mertens in their second round clash on Rod Laver Arena. The Aussie won just three of the last 16 games to hand Mertens a 7-5, 6-3 victory. Ouch!
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“Good on him. Little claim to fame. Let him have it.”
— Nick Kyrgios when told that the spectator distracting him during his match said on social media it was the greatest thing he has ever done.
STAT OF THE DAY
22 — The 15-year-old Marta Kostyuk became the youngest to reach the Australian Open third round since Martina Hingis in 1996.
MARATHONER OF THE DAY
In typical Ivo Karlovic fashion, the 89th-ranked Croatian survived a four-hour 33-minute affair to defeat Jack Sock’s conqueror Yuichi Sugita 7-6 (3), 6-7 (3), 7-5, 4-6, 12-10 and become the oldest man to reach the Australian Open third round in 40 years. He fired 53 aces and will next play Italy’s Andreas Seppi.
— Christopher Kas (@KasiTennis) January 17, 2018
DRAW OPENINGS ALERT
One of the following will be in the quarter-finals:
Ivo Karlovic, Andreas Seppi, Nikoloz Basilashvili, Kyle Edmund.
One of the following will be in the semi-finals:
Luksika Kumkhum, Petra Martic, Elise Mertens, Alize Cornet, Denisa Allertova, Magda Linette, Marta Kostyuk, Elina Svitolina.
DEBUTANT TO REMEMBER
Mackenzie McDonald made sure he left a lasting impression on his first Australian Open as he narrowly lost to No. 3 seed Grigor Dimitrov in an entertaining affair that ended 8-6 in the fifth set in the Bulgarian’s favour. McDonald won both the singles and doubles NCAA titles with UCLA in 2016 and is ranked 186 in the world.
Gallant in defeat.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 17, 2018
POINTS FOR EFFORT
Malek Jaziri spent a total of eight hours and four minutes on court in his first two rounds. The Tunisian came back from two sets down to defeat Salvatore Caruso in his opener then climbed from a two-sets-to-love deficit in the second round against No. 23 seed Gilles Muller before finally surrendering in five sets. Not bad from a guy who turns 34 in three days.