Novak Djokovic really does come alive on Rod Laver Arena – a court where he has lifted the Australian Open trophy four times – and Saturday against Fernando Verdasco was no exception.
It was supposed to be the top seed’s toughest test yet this week in Melbourne, as he took on the powerful Spanish lefty, but after sneaking away with the first-set tiebreak, where he recovered from a 3-5 deficit, Djokovic never looked back.
The Serb produced a serving master-class to complete a 7-6 (8), 6-3, 6-4 victory over Verdasco, and book himself a spot in the fourth round for a ninth consecutive year at Melbourne Park.
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“It's a great confidence booster if you are on the court where you have great memories and you won the tournament four times,” said Djokovic, whose match was interrupted by a man who proposed to his girlfriend in the stands.
“It's not any tournament. I'm always trying to have that in the back of my mind, the great performances I had over the years. I try to use that in my advantage.”
Verdasco, who could have tried to implement the same strategy by trying to utilise the memories from his semi-final run in Melbourne six years ago, said losing the opening set tiebreak was tough to recover from, especially that he double-faulted at 5-3.
“It was a very important first set. We were close. At the end he won that tiebreak and he got a little bit more confidence. I tried to stay in the match but of course this kind of player doesn’t give you many chances,” said the 31-year-old, who couldn’t convert any of the three break point opportunities he created.
“I think both of us we served very good. But for me, talking about returning his serve it was tough because he was serving so close to the lines and every direction. It was difficult to read it and put the ball in play in a not so easy way for him to hit the first ball after the serve.
“But I tried until the last ball and I think I didn’t play a bad match.”
Djokovic will next face an unlikely opponent he has never played before, Luxembourg’s Gilles Muller, who upset No19 seed John Isner 7-6 (4), 7-6 (6), 6-4.
For someone he has never played before, Djokovic certainly knows a lot about the 42nd-ranked Muller.
“It's my job to know my colleagues, tennis players, especially if I get to play them. So I do my homework,” said Djokovic, who is trying to be just the second man in history to win five Australian Opens.
“He's been on the tour for many years. Best junior in the world. He's got a great serve, lefty. So I think the match tonight will help me in the next one, as well. He has a similar game, except he serves and volleys and he comes to the net. He has a nice slice serve. That's his favourite.”
Earlier in the day, Stan Wawrinka kept his title defence alive by stepping past Finland’s Jarkko Nieminen 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. His fourth round will be a grudge match against Guillermo Garcia Lopez, who beat the Swiss in the opening round of the French Open last year.
Ninth-seeded David Ferrer survived a gruelling affair against Frenchman Gilles Simon, squandering numerous leads including a 5-1 gap in the fourth set, before eventually coming through 6-2, 7-5, 5-7, 7-6(4).
He faces another potential marathon against No5 seed Kei Nishikori in the last 16 after the Japanese pushed past Steve Johnson 6-7(7), 6-1, 6-2, 6-3.