Australian Open 2023: Irritable and injured, Novak Djokovic faces test from his ‘Balkan brother’

Grand Slam fever grips tennis fans all over the world as the 2023 Australian Open kicks off. For the next fortnight, The Deccan Era will bring you the biggest storylines of the day, and the best matches to watch at timings suitable for Indian audiences, every morning.

Showcase match

(4) Novak Djokovic vs (27) Grigor Dimitrov (Round of 32)
1.30 pm, Rod Laver Arena

Novak Djokovic returned to Melbourne with a positive reception, with the Australian crowd and him both ready to put last year’s bizarre storyline behind them. But his return, in its first week, has not been as comfortable as he would have liked.

Djokovic arrived with injury trouble, having felt tightness in his hamstring on his way to his first title of the year at the Adelaide tune-up. The injury has got worse, as Djokovic failed to train consistently ahead of his first two matches and has needed to wrap it up in protective tape.

“My situation with my injury is not ideal,” he said after his second-round win over Enzo Couacaud. “I am not practising basically on the days between (matches) because I’m trying to give myself more time possible for my leg to be in somewhat of an ‘ideal’ state for performance on a high level.”

The hamstring is not the only source of his uneasiness. Djokovic has cut a frustrated figure for most of his time on the court, being distracted by one thing or another. On Thursday, it was a heckler, whom he described as “drunk out of his mind”, who came to Melbourne Park to provoke him and not watch tennis in an argument with the chair umpire.

When not on the court, Djokovic has taken aim at the media. Pre-tournament, he sympathised with the people of Melbourne who took issue with his trying to enter without vaccination, having faced stringent lockdown protocols, but blamed the media for misleading the public and making him a “villain of the world”.

More recently, he took a jab at tournament broadcaster Eurosport, who posted a video on social media of an exchange between him and a chair umpire, claiming that he ran off the court to use the washroom and defied her despite him not having a designated toilet break.

He called the channel out on Instagram and spoke later about how he felt targeted by the media. “The media is trying to publicly lynch me,” he said, in the heat of the moment, while speaking to Serbian reporters on Thursday.

Not in prime form

He has griped and grimaced through his first few days in Melbourne, and it has affected his level, dropping the second set in the second round due to restrictions in his movement thanks to the hamstring, and distractions from the crowd.

Lapses cannot be afforded against his next opponent, Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov, dubbed by Djokovic his “Balkan Brother” whom he knows really well off the court, despite last having met him on the court in 2019.

Dimitrov was once a promising up-and-comer on tour. His blistering serve, versatile one-handed backhand, and tendency to come to the net and finish points early, had earned him the nickname of ‘Baby Federer’. He reached the semifinal at the Australian Open – his favourite Major – in 2017, the same year he won the ATP Finals and reached a career-high ranking of World No. 3.

Despite his career meandering for a few years, the 31-year-old has arrived in Melbourne looking dangerously competitive. He has navigated tricky early assignments, against Aslan Karatsev and Laslo Djere, with remarkable ease. The Bulgarian has a tournament-leading 59% of first serves unreturned, and has faced only one break point, which he saved. Both he and Djokovic are the only players in the men’s draw yet to be broken.

This is likely to be the kind of test a top player uses to play themselves into form at a Major. An early fixture against a peaking opponent that allows them to gauge their level by going toe to toe from the baseline, and test some of their tactics. Expect Djokovic to mix things up more, come up to the net (he has won 54/61 points at the net in two matches) and put in plenty of low backhand slices and drop shots to make Dimitrov move and disrupt his rhythm.

More importantly, keep an eye on whether the nine-time champion is able to stay fit, and cut the distractions out, to strengthen his bid to lift the title he is the overwhelming favourite for.

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