In the match before the match in question, Andrey Rublev pipped Holger Rune by a net cord and then announced to Rod Laver Arena how unhappy he was to be playing Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals. “No one wants to face Novak,” he said. “I prefer to be in the other half of the draw.”
When he was reminded that Djokovic was not yet in the quarter-finals, that he still had to play Alex de Minaur to get there, he was embarrassed. “Oh shit,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Rublev’s assumption – premature though it was – mirrored the odds. Despite Djokovic’s injury, and despite De Minaur’s recent form, not many backed the Australian on Monday. Still, the manner of the result came as a shock. Not because Djokovic does not know how to win, but because he won playing at his imperious best.
Jim Courier chose not to ask Djokovic how he beat him so convincingly, but why he beat him so convincingly. “Because I wanted to,” Djokovic said. He smiled as he spoke; he knew it was cheeky. He also knew it was cheeky to continue that sentence with: “I cannot say I’m sorry that you haven’t watched a longer match.”
But on the evidence of the previous two hours and six minutes, during which he lost five games, it was also the truth. Since Djokovic won his ninth Australian Open in 2021 he has been in dogged, almost blinkered pursuit of a 10th. He has landed in Melbourne and been deported without hitting a ball and had a federal government visa ban overturned to ensure he would be allowed to stay this time.
Now he is even sacrificing his alternative medical views by “taking a lot of pills”. “Not those kind of pills,” he said, but anti-inflammatories to mask the pain of his hamstring injury – the only remaining roadblock to total domination. “It wasn’t obvious I was dealing with an injury,” he said. “I didn’t feel anything.”
De Minaur did. When Djokovic hits the ball at full pelt you can feel it from the stands. It blasts through you, shakes your organs on its way out. De Minaur had a wandering spleen, stunned by the sheer weight of his shots, his speed – famous on the tour – nullified by a man with one and a half legs.
Part of it was surely mental, because Djokovic had that look in his eyes – the Kubrick Stare. He even stretched his hamstring as if he was about to murder you with it. This match was a horror show, not because De Minaur was remarkably bad but because his opponent was remarkably good. Before this, one might have made a case that Stefanos Tsitispas is the men’s favourite. As it stands, Tsitsipas is better than the rest and Djokovic is better than him.
De Minaur is 12 years Djokovic’s junior. At 23, he is ranked 24th in the world – three places below Nick Kyrgios – but is rarely in the spotlight. Even Australia’s wildcards have been described with more superlatives over this past week than the country’s most consistent male player, who has beaten Rafael Nadal and Daniil Medvedev in the past two months.
De Minaur had never played Djokovic before. That could have played its part, because there were some choice points in the third set when he tried something new, forced his opponent to approach the net and negotiate tricky backspin, which the Serb could not do within the confines of the court.
Overall, though, he was outdone in almost every element. It must have been awfully lonely, on centre court with a home crowd watching as your second serve is returned just as quickly as your first and your chances of a first home-slam quarter-finals appearance disintegrate with each point.
“What I experienced was probably Novak very close to his best,” De Minaur said. “If that’s the level, he’s definitely the guy that’s going to take the title. He was what felt like on another level to mine. I was just trying to hang on.
“At the start he was very solid, then he loosened up even more and started swinging. It felt like he could hit winners from every place in the court. I didn’t really know what to do.”
Rublev has his next opponent confirmed and his alarm is probably fair. “He’s an established top-five, top-10 player already for few years,” Djokovic said. “Incredible firepower, especially from the serve and forehand corner. Just a very explosive player – little bit like De Minaur, so hopefully the result will be the same.”