Australian Open Daily Preview: Novak Djokovic Plays Australia’s Alex de Minaur in the Fourth Round - UBITENNIS
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Australian Open Daily Preview: Novak Djokovic Plays Australia’s Alex de Minaur in the Fourth Round

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Novak Djokovic on Saturday in Melbourne (twitter.com/australianopen)

As we enter the second week of the 2023 Australian Open, the remaining men’s field owns 21 Major singles titles, and of course they all belong to Novak Djokovic.  The nine-time champion is a huge favorite to tie Rafael Nadal with his 22nd Slam title, but only if his injured hamstring holds up.  On Monday, he faces the only Australian left in either singles draw, Alex de Minaur.

 

Other round of 16 action features tennis’ youth movement, with players like 19-year-old Holger Rune, 20-year-old Ben Shelton, and 17-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova.  And in a battle between two of the WTA’s hottest players to start the year, Aryna Sabalenka takes on Belinda Bencic.

Each day this preview will highlight the four most intriguing matchups, while outlining the other notable matches on the schedule.  Monday’s play will begin at 11:00am local time. 


Aryna Sabalenka (5) vs. Belinda Bencic (12) – 11:00am on Rod Laver Arena

Sabalenka is now 7-0 in 2023, and 14-0 in sets.  During the first week of this tournament, she allowed her opponents just over two games per set.  And most importantly, she’s struck just seven double faults through three matches, a stark contrast to the beginning of last year, when she was striking double-digit double faults in most of her matches.

Bencic is now 8-1 in 2023, with her only loss coming to World No.1 Iga Swiatek during the United Cup.  Like Sabalenka, she is yet to drop a set this fortnight.  And Belinda is now being coached by Dmitry Tursunvov, who previously coached Aryna to the top of the game.

Bencic has never been farther than this round in Melbourne, and came into this tournament with a modest 12-9 record at the Australian Open.  This is the third consecutive year Sabalenka has reached the fourth round down under, but she’s also yet to go farther, and was 8-5 here before this year.

They have split two previous meetings, both on hard courts.  Five years ago in New Haven, Sabalenka won in straights.  Four years ago in Dubai, Bencic won in a third set tiebreak.  In the rubber match, I give Aryna and her power game the slight edge at this event, despite the valuable coaching knowledge Tursunov can offer to Belinda.


Donna Vekic vs. Linda Fruhvirtova – Second on Margaret Court Arena

Vekic is a former top 20 player and US Open quarterfinalist.  But injuries have disrupted the last few years of her career.  Yet she’s undefeated to start 2023, having taken all her United Cup matches in straight sets.  And Hall of Famer Pam Shriver has joined her coaching team.

Fruhvirtova is one of many Czech teenagers on the rise, alongside her younger sister Brenda.  Less than a year ago, Linda was ranked outside the top 300.  But in her second appearance in the main draw at a Major, she’s into the second week for the first time, and is on the verge of cracking the top 50.

In their first career meeting, Vekic must be favored.  She has a vast experience edge over Fruvirtova, especially at Majors.  And Donna has been serving very well, winning 82% of first serve points across her last two matches.


Andrey Rublev (5) vs. Holger Rune (9) – Not Before 2:30pm on Rod Laver Arena

This is a blockbuster fourth round affair between two top 10 seeds.  Rublev has only dropped one set to this stage, and is looking to achieve his third quarterfinal in as many Majors.  Andrey went 51-20 last season, and 4-0 in finals, though he lost both of his matches in Australia to start this year before this event.

Rune has not dropped a set, and has only been broken four times across the nine sets he’s played.  He’s vying for his second Major quarterfinal, after first achieving that feat last year in Paris.  Later in the season in that same city, he won his first Masters 1000 title at the Paris Indoors, upsetting Novak Djokovic in a stellar final.

Earlier in that tournament, Rune defeated Rublev 6-4, 7-5 in their only previous meeting.  And based on the way the streaky Danish teenager is currently playing, I favor Holger to defeat Andrey again on Monday. 


Alex de Minaur vs. Novak Djokovic (7) – 7:00pm on Rod Laver Arena

Djokovic has managed to overcome his hamstring injury to reach the second week of this event for the 15th time.  But will his injured leg be able to keep up with the speedy Australian’s excellent court coverage?

De Minaur loves representing his country, especially at this event.  This round of 16 appearance equals his best result at his home Slam, which he first achieved a year ago.  Alex best Major result was reaching the quarterfinals at the 2020 US Open.  In the lead-up to this tournament, he upset Rafael Nadal at the United Cup, winning 7-5 in the third.

In their first career encounter, an injured Djokovic still must be the favorite.  Novak is now 34-2 since the start of Wimbledon last summer, and he’s a man on a mission after missing multiple Majors last year due to his vaccination status.  But if de Minaur can use his defensive skills to extend points, and to extend Novak out wide, which the injured nine-time champion has been struggling to cover, Alex has a shot to upset another all-time great this month. 


Other Notable Matches on Monday:

Magda Linette vs. Caroline Garcia (4) – Garcia came back from a set down to defeat Laura Siegemund in the last round, and is seeking her second consecutive Slam quarterfinal.  Linette is into the second week of a Slam for the first time in her career in her 30th time in a Slam main draw, and at the age of 30.  Six years ago in Strasbourg, Caroline beat Magda in straight sets.

Karolina Pliskova (30) vs. Shuai Zhang (23) – Pliskova is yet to drop a set, and is 7-0 against Shuai at all levels.  Zhang famously was contemplating retirement before 2016 Australian Open, having gone 0-14 in the main draw of Majors.  But then she reached the quarterfinals of this event, a feat she repeated three years later at Wimbledon.  She also won the women’s doubles title at this tournament in 2019 alongside newly-retired Aussie Sam Stosur.

Ben Shelton vs. J.J. Wolf – This is the first appearance in the fourth round of a Major for both young Americans.  For Wolf, it’s only his third time in the main draw at a Major, after previously advancing to the third round of the US Open in 2021 and 2023.  A year ago, he was ranked outside the top 200, but will be inside the top 50 after this fortnight.  For Shelton, it’s his second time in the main draw at a Major, and his first time traveling outside the United States in his life.  A year ago, he was ranked outside the top 500, but would also move into the top 50 with a win on Monday.

Roberto Bautista Agut (24) vs. Tommy Paul – Bautista Agut eliminated an exhausted Andy Murray on Saturday night, and was a quarterfinalist here four years ago, which was also the last time he defeated Murray down under.  Paul is vying for his first Major quarterfinal, after also reaching the round of 16 at last July’s Wimbledon.  Bautista Agut is 3-1 against Paul, though Tommy took their most recent meeting, just two months ago in Bercy on a hard court.


Monday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Dominic Thiem Rules Federer Out Of GOAT Debate

The Austrian puts forward his theory on who should be regarded as the best player in history.

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Dominic Thiem; e-motion/Bildagentur Zolles KG/Martin Steiger, 27.10.2022

The honour of which player deserves to be regarded as the greatest of all time (GOAT) should be decided based on one factor, according to Dominic Thiem. 

 

The former world No.3 has weighed in on the debate by suggesting that the argument should be settled by the number of Grand Slam titles a player has won as they are the most prestigious tournaments in the sport. In tennis, the four major tournaments are the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. 

Thiem’s GOAT criteria have therefore ruled Roger Federer out of contention. The Swiss maestro was at one stage the frontrunner due to the numerous records he has broken throughout his career. However, he retired from the sport last year with 20 Grand Slam trophies under his belt which is less than both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic who are currently on 22 each. 

“In my opinion, the Grand Slam titles should be the defining criteria when determining the best of all time, they are the four most important tournaments in tennis,” Eurosport quotes Thiem as saying. 
“Everything else is fine, but it’s not the same. The Slams are what counts, so the GOAT will probably be the one with the most Grand Slams.”

Others will argue that more factors should be taken into account in the subjective debate. For example, Federer has won 103 ATP titles which are more than his two rivals, Djokovic holds the record for most weeks as world No.1 and Nadal has won more tournaments on clay than any other player in history. Furthermore, there is the players’ win-loss rate on the Tour and their records against the top 10 players. 

Recently at the Australian Open Djokovic won the men’s title for a historic 10th time in his career. An achievement that has been hailed by Thiem who was runner-up to the Serbian at Melbourne Park in 2021. 

“I am not very surprised, Djokovic still looks young,” he said. “Physically and mentally, because of the way he moves on the court. It’s like he was 25 years old.
“We have to be honest, he is the best, so his victory was not very surprising.”

Thiem has won one Grand Slam title which was at the 2020 US Open when he became the first man in the Open Era to come back from two sets down to win in the final. He has also been runner-up at the French Open twice, as well as the Australian Open once. 

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Novak Djokovic’s Australian Open Injury ‘Hard To Believe’ In The Eyes Of His Opponent

Some details surrounding Djokovic’s battle with a hamstring issue ‘doesn’t make sense,’ according to Enzo Couacaud.

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Image via Adelaide International Twitter

The only man to take a set off Novak Djokovic during the Serbian’s run to a historic 10th Australian Open title believes there are unanswered questions over his injury. 

 

France’s Enzo Couacaud took a set off the world No.1 before losing their encounter in the second round at Melbourne Park. At the tournament Djokovic was dealing with a hamstring problem which he picked up at the Adelaide International earlier this year. Throughout the tournament, he was wearing strapping on his leg and there was uncertainty about if he would be able to continue playing in the Grand Slam event. 

Despite the issue, Djokovic claimed a record-equalling 22nd Grand Slam title by disposing of Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets in the final. Afterwards his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, claimed that 97% of players would not have played if they were in a similar situation. The exact diagnosis of Djokovic’s injury hasn’t been addressed by his team but Australian Open director Craig Tiley said he suffered a 3mm tear. 

However, Couacaud has questioned the significance of the injury to begin with. During an interview with Tennis Actu, the world No.172 believes that some of the details appear to be ‘far-fetched’ as he draws parallels with Rafael Nadal, as well as footballer Kylian Mbappe.  

“Novak claimed he was playing with an injury, a big injury,” said Couacaud. “When athletes are injured in combat sports, they often can’t continue. When Rafael Nadal is injured, he can’t run. Kylian Mbappe, for example, is out for two weeks.
“And those are the greatest athletes, not those who don’t have access to top-notch care. It is therefore difficult to believe that only one man in the world can continue with an injury.
“When you take the examples of Nadal or Mbappe, but especially Rafa, with an injury to Wimbledon, he couldn’t even serve. When you see the greatest who can’t set foot on the pitch and another who wins a Grand Slam by playing every day for 15 days. It still seems a bit far-fetched.
“There are little things that don’t make sense to me. I was always told not to stretch with an injury. You saw Novak stretching all the time. You say to yourself, either they have a new method in Serbia, or it’s weird. Little things like that, he has his staff, but I’m too far to judge the authenticity of anything. It is true that it seems hard to believe.”

It is not the first time Djokovic has faced accusations that he has in some way exaggerated the significance of an injury. He encountered a similar situation during the 2021 Australian Open where he suffered an abdominal injury. After winning the tournament, he confirmed that he sustained a tear in the region. 

Speaking to journalists at Melbourne Park last month, the tennis star once again hit back at his critics and claimed that he was being singled out. 

“I leave the doubting to those people – let them doubt,” Tennis Majors quoted Djokovic as saying in Serbian following his fourth round win over Alex de Minaur. “Only my injuries are questioned. When some other players are injured, then they are the victims, but when it is me, I am faking it. It is very interesting… I don’t feel that I need to prove anything to anyone.
“I am not really interested at this point what people are thinking and saying. It is fun, it is interesting to see how the narrative surrounding me continues, narrative that is different compared to other players that have been going through similar situation. But I am used to it, and it just gives me extra strength and motivation. So I thank them for that.”

Djokovic has won 93 ATP titles during his career which is the fourth-highest tally in history. Only Ivan Lendl (94), Roger Federer (102) and Jimmy Connors (109) have won more. 

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Novak Djokovic ‘Hurt’ By Father’s Absence From Australian Open Final

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Novak Djokovic - Roland Garros 2022 (foto Roberto dell'Olivo)

Novak Djokovic said he mutually agreed with his father that he did not attend his latest Australian Open match but admits it was a bitter pill to swallow. 

 

Srdjan Djokovic had attended his son’s matches throughout the majority of the tournament but has recently been caught up in controversy. On Wednesday a video surfaced on social media of the 62-year-old posing for a photo with pro-Russian supporters with one of the fans waving a flag with the face of Vladimir Putin on it. Another fan was also wearing a t-shirt with the ‘Z’ symbol on it which is used to support the Russian army. 

The Russian and Belarussian flags were banned from the tournament this year following an incident in the first round. A Russian flag was shown during a match between Ukraine’s Kateryna Baindl and Russia’s Kamilla Rakhimova. Prompting anger from Ukraine with its ambassador to Australia calling for a ‘neutral flag’ policy to be implemented. 

Srdjan has since issued a statement saying the incident was ‘unintentional’ and said his family ‘only wish for peace in the world.’ He subsequently also missed Djokovic’s semi-final match to avoid any possible ‘disruption’ before doing the same for Sunday’s final.

“I thought things would calm down in terms of media and everything, but it didn’t. We both agreed it would probably be better that he is not there,” Djokovic said after beating Stefanos Tsitsipas to win a record-equalling 22nd Grand Slam title
“That hurts me and him (Srdjan) a lot because these are very special, unique moments. Who knows if they repeat again? So it was not easy for him.”

Whilst he was not in the stands, Djokovic was reunited with his father shortly afterwards. Although the tennis star said Srdjan ‘was not feeling his best’ due to the situation. 

“It is what it is. I think in the end also what he told me is that it’s important that I feel good on the court, I win the match, and he’s here for me,” Djokovic continued. 
“If it’s going to be better for me as the outcome of the match so that he’s not in the box, then so be it. That was the whole conversation.’
“In a way, I’m also sad that he was not there, present, in the stands. But he was throughout the entire tournament, so it’s fine. In the end, we have a happy ending.”

Djokovic has now won five out of the past seven Grand Slam tournaments he has played in. At the Australian Open alone he has won 28 matches in a row.

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