The finest player in the world looked for a long time here on Sunday evening like one of the worst, and Novak Djokovic goes through to his 27th straight grand slam quarter-final a relieved but worried champion after taking five sets to beat the world No15 Gilles Simon.
It was his 10th victory over him in 11 matches, but by some way his worst winning performance, as he racked up a staggering 100 unforced errors over five fretful sets in four hours and 32 minutes.
He could so easily have lost it had Simon taken advantage of a few more opportunities. But the Frenchman played wonderful tennis too. And the Serb did not hit anywhere near his best for disturbingly long stretches. If he is ill, he is in trouble. If he is not ill, he is still in trouble. Next up is Kei Nishikori, who put him out of the US Open two years ago.
Djokovic won 6-3, 6-7(1), 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, somehow surviving the dreaded century of mistakes in a single effort, which could be the highest number ever recorded by the winner of a tennis match, according to the American commentator and former player Brad Gilbert. Certainly it would be Djokovic’s worst return.
“Playing against a player like Gilles you can expect a lot of rallies,” Djokovic said. “He always makes you play an extra shot. It was physically demanding. He is probably the best counter-puncher we have on tour. He is not overwhelmed by big players. I hope I will be able to decrease my unforced error count against Kei.”
On court afterwards, a fan shouted from the crowd, “No more drop shots!”
Djokovic, who butchered 15 of them on the single backhand, replied, “I hate to say it, but you’re absolutely right!”
He could not have picked a worse opponent to play such horrendous tennis on Sunday.
Some of Simon’s epic matches have been played out here. Most recently, he lost in four tough sets to David Ferrer last year. It took him 10 long sets to get past Daniel Brands and Marin Cilic the year before; there was a five-setter against Gael Monfils in 2013, most memorable for the longest rally in the history of grand slam tennis, 71 shots.
All in all, Simon was 6-2 in five setters here, his best performance probably a losing effort to Roger Federer in the second round in 2011. They do not call him The Grinder for nothing.
But he has plenty of flair too, and, on those occasions when he let loose, he gave Djokovic fits. The match was bustling along to script early on as the Serb settled into a decent rhythm, and there was little hint of the chaos to come.
Simon refused to fold. As he had reminded so many others here in the past, he had not made the long journey to be a mere dancing partner. He wanted the win, the biggest of his career.
He hung in hard in the second and, once in the tie-break, sensed hesitancy across the net. Djokovic, curiously out of sorts, simply couldn’t find the winner to subdue his stubborn foe, and Simon was all but gifted parity.
The world’s best player looked a little like his old self to take a 2-1 lead but again faltered in the fourth set, as the Frenchman continued to mix it up with hardcore defence and no little artistry.
Djokovic saved four set points in the 10th game but an 87th unforced error, a sliced backhand into the net, gave Simon parity and they went to a fifth. Djokovic hadn’t lost a fifth set since Stan Wawrinka beat him in 2014 on the way to the title. And he wasn’t going to win this one.
He brought a 25-8 record in five setters to the battle and, finally, showed his true class. Quite why he can be such a tennis chameleon is a mystery. Few players, apart from Andy Murray perhaps, can swing so violently from amazing to dreadful.
He raced to 5-1 without bother but serving for the match, he dropped serve again. It was as if he was deliberately torturing himself for some untold crime. He wasted two match points on Simon’s serve. The underdog, the snarling, courageous underdog, held, and Djokovic had to serve for the match a second time – and sealed it to love with a backhand down the line from midcourt.
Not many present will forget this curious, enthralling match.
Djokovic, however, has plenty of work to do if he is not to suffer again in his next assignment. Nishikori, who put him out of the US Open two years ago, breezed past Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-4, 6-2, 6-0 – although he will still not be favourite.
This article was written by Kevin Mitchell at Melbourne Park, for theguardian.com on Sunday 24th January 2016 09.03 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010