An ailing Novak Djokovic said on Saturday every moment counts now that he is in the “final stage” of his career, having beaten Grigor Dimitrov and into the Australian Open round of 16.
The Serb rode through a titanic 77-minute first set before taming the Bulgarian 7-6 (9/7), 6-3, 6-4 at Rod Laver Arena, twice requiring treatment for his troublesome hamstring .
He will face home prospect Alex de Minaur for a place in the quarter-finals after the 22nd seed matched his best result of the tournament by beating France’s Benjamin Bonzi in straight sets.
Djokovic’s audacious victory moved him one step closer to a 10th Australian Open title and a record 22 Grand Slam crowns.
Winning again in Melbourne would also take him back to world number one for the first time since June.
Now 35, Djokovic said he relishes each tournament more.
“Every season counts, I guess now, when you get to the last stage, the last quarter of your career,” he said.
“Obviously you start to appreciate and value each tournament more because you might not have much left in the tank.
“I’ve been truly blessed to do what I love, I love sport, I love competition. It’s now been almost 20 years in professional sport. I can’t be more grateful than I am.”
The victory put Djokovic in the last 16 for a 15th time, but he was forced to work for it, especially with his left hamstring which troubled him.
“Every point, every game counted,” he said.
“Obviously I didn’t know how I was going to feel physically, it was going up and down,” he said.
“It was an incredible battle, three sets in three hours.”
Djokovic aggravated his hamstrings during his run to a 92nd Adelaide International title this month and has been struggling ever since.
– ‘Ready for battle’ –
Djokovic entered the match without his usual off-day training session to give his leg as much time as possible to recover.
With his left thigh heavily strapped, the Serb immediately broke and consolidated to take a quick hold on the first set.
He was cruising but seemed to feel the injury as he moved for a shot at 5-3. He managed to win three set points, which were saved, but were then broken on serve for the set at 5-4.
Agitated, he complained to the referee about a time violation and was then forced to save two set points, before an epic tie-break.
He finally crossed the line on his fifth set point after intense tennis.
Djokovic took a medical timeout during the change and came back to increase the pressure and take a break before comfortably seeing the second set.
With Dimitrov signaled, he turned the screws further by breaking twice early in the third set.
Despite a wobble in the middle of the set as the Bulgarian recovered and then more treatment on his leg, Djokovic fought on to the finish line.
De Minaur, who is aiming for a first quarter-final at Melbourne Park, now awaits Djokovic after a 7-6 (7/0), 6-2, 6-1 win.
“These are the games you want to play,” the Australian said.
“I will probably have the best of the world in front of me and I am ready for battle.”
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