SPORTING LIFE

Rohit at the Australian Open: Defending champ crashes out, becomes a Djokovictim

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic returning against Stan Wawrinka during his 7-6, 3-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 victory in yesterday's Australian Open semi-final. He will meet Andy Murray in tomorrow's final.
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic returning against Stan Wawrinka during his 7-6, 3-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 victory in yesterday's Australian Open semi-final. He will meet Andy Murray in tomorrow's final.PHOTO: REUTERS

Serb not at his best but lifted under pressure to end Wawrinka's hopes

AUSTRALIAN OPEN

Novak Djokovic was tense not terrific, erratic not exact, not dominating but being dictated to, indecisive not imperious. He was not his glittering self in his semi-final last night and yet he shone when the pressure heightened. Sometimes a champion must be less than great and yet find victory for us to appreciate how great he is.

Tomorrow he chases his fifth Australian Open title against Andy Murray and an intriguing contest beckons: Best player on the planet against best player of this tournament.

Art is only one of sports' beautiful components, valour is another. Fatigue - but not frailty - followed Djokovic. He physically resembles a lightweight boxer and mentally always finds another wind. Stan Wawrinka may have been defending his title, but Djokovic was defending his reputation as No. 1 in the world.

The Serb won 7-6 (7-1), 3-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-0, hugged his rival, beat his heart, inhaled oxygen, exhaled relief. "I was ready for battle," he said. But then he always is.

Before the match commenced, as the players awaited the toss, Wawrinka did calisthenics at the net. Playing Djokovic, after all, is a guaranteed weight-loss programme. These two men anyway could turn a game of ludo into an epic: Each of their last three Grand Slam meetings has stretched to five sets.

Last night was no different, but unlike their five-hour two- minute marathon from 2013, this was a three-hour, 30-minute stroll. Yet the occasion was draining and as the Serb said: "We pushed each other to the limit."

As matches often can, this one started with subdued intensity. As if in a contest with no prescribed time limit, competitive muscles first had to be stretched, pace gauged, court adjusted to.

The first five games took merely 11 minutes, then abruptly breaks were exchanged, the Serb cruised through the tie-breaker, but the match had no heat. They were not so much winning points as finding ways to lose them. As Wawrinka ruefully admitted later: "Not the best (match) for sure."

Small tastes of their talent appeared in the second set as Wawrinka hit a backhand pass that was a flaming yellow arrow down the line. The Swiss was turning into a blunt instrument, the Serb an imprecise instrument. He deals in centimetres but was missing by too many inches. By the end, Djokovic had 49 unforced errors, but Wawrinka had 69.

Wawrinka broke to 4-2, took the second set, and unlike Murray-Berdych this was not a high-class affair nor a particularly high-strung one. He shanked a backhand, which is a headline in itself. He lightly banged a sponsor sign, Djokovic bounced a racket. The Swiss gave a thumbs-up to a Djokovic lob, the Serb applauded a hissing forehand pass by Wawrinka. Men relentless yet respectful. Perhaps too much so, for they graciously kept letting each other back into the match.

Briefly in the third set, they found their better selves. As it is with champions, when one man, the Swiss, rose, it only provoked the other, the Serb, to respond. Rallies broke out, the court was explored, athleticism tested, yet no man could hold onto momentum or their serve. The Serb broke, the Swiss evened it, only to be broken at 4-5 to hand Djokovic the set.

When Djokovic broke to 2-0 in the fourth, the match belonged to him but he conceded "I made my life very complicated". He moved oddly, like a man with a drained battery, was broken back, then had Wawrinka down 0-40 and let him off. It was as if a champion was too tired to remember how to close.

A bizarre match appropriately found a curious conclusion. Wawrinka had taken the fourth set, yet, "mentally done", he folded in the fifth 0-6; Djokovic seemed uninspired only to emerge animated. He ran down the Swiss and then finally ran him over.

Djokovic has a single day to recover, Murray will have had two. But the Serb has the resilience of a mountaineer, always convincing himself to take one more step.

In 2012, on this very court, he took five sets and four hours and 50 minutes to defeat Murray in the semis and then out-ran Rafael Nadal over five sets across five hours and 53 minutes. If he can outlast the Scot over another five sets tomorrow, the producers of Ironman should consider him for casting.

rohitb@sph.com.sg