The world No1, Novak Djokovic, resumes his quest for a place in the quarter-finals on Tuesday having survived a near-death experience in a titanic struggle with the South African Kevin Anderson.
That he lives to fight another day is an outcome that might not have occurred to him in the first two sets, both of which he lost in tie-breaks with the big hittingg, seemingly impregnable No14 seed. Anderson had his day of days, routinely firing down pinpoint serves of 130mph and sending Djokovic scurrying in the relative few rallies.
The agony went on for two hours, until Djokovic, two down and staring into the abyss, galvanised himself. Simultaneously Anderson seemed to lose an inkling of energy and a modicum of belief. By the time bad light stopped play at 9pm, Djokovic had secured two quick sets and had his rescue mission on track. But he will have seen enough to have no certainty about what happens when the two men settle the matter on Tuesday.
A pattern established itself early; Djokovic no match for Anderson’s ferocity; was forced to rely on instinct, agility and clever placement; grace under cannon fire. Anderson could just swing away. He hit more than 30 aces. Everything was going in.
Anderson started the tie-break the stronger, secured the mini break from the first exchange but Djokovic levelled, leaping improbably to his left to parry a backhand for a winner. With a deft lob that brushed the back of the line Djokovic went 2-1 up. Anderson broke back and the two men swapped blows until 6-6 when a hesitant Djokovic, long in his preparation, double faulted. Anderson launched another Scud to take the tie-break 8-6 and with it, after an hour, the set.
Anderson began the second in the same belligerent mood with deliveries Djokovic could only flail at. In the fourth game, attrition told and Anderson got the break to go 3-1 up. Djokovic, grimly focused, increased his intensity, diving, stretching, lunging. He pulled it back to make it 3-2, and energised by the chink of light, held his own serve to draw level at 3-3.
But still the Anderson artillery rained down. Djokovic went 4-1 up in the tie-break but Anderson kept pressuring. Soon it was 5-5. Then 6-6. After two mighty forehands and a deft drop volley it was 8-6, and Anderson two sets to the good.
The champion – desperate for a boost – got one at the start of the third set with a break of Anderson’s serve to go 3-0 up. Even now Anderson was hitting powerfully but less reliably. With another break for 5-1 the champion took the third set 6-1 in just 24 minutes.
Galvanised now by the sight of Anderson tiring and perhaps fallible, Djokovic also started the fourth set brightly. It took him three games to break serve. Suddenly Djokovic was imposing his game on the South African, driving him into corners and cutting off any responses at the net. At just after 8pm, in dwindling light, Djokovic whipped an angled forehand across the court, raised his arms. Finally, after three gruelling hours, he gained parity.
It was the last act of an intriguing As the two men sat down, play was halted. drama. The winner will meet Marin Cilic and it is to Anderson’s credit that Cilic still cannot know who that will be.
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