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.
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