Melbourne: Novak Djokovic held off a valiant Swiss player for a 5-hour, five-set victory on Sunday night, extending his winning streak to 18 matches at the Australian Open and then ripping off his shirt to celebrate.
The big surprise: It was a fourth-round match against Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland, not a final against Roger Federer.
Djokovic edged the 15th-seeded Wawrinka 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 12-10 in a momentum-swinging marathon, cashing in on his third match point to reach the quarter finals for a 15th consecutive major tournament.
The style was reminiscent of his 5-hour, 53-minute final win here last year against Rafael Nadal.
“He deserved equally to be a winner of this match,” said Djokovic, who is aiming to be the first man in the Open era to win three consecutive Australian titles.
“I give him a lot of credit. He has all my respect. He was the aggressive player on the court. I was just hanging in there trying to fight.”
Djokovic had beaten Wawrinka — the perennial No. 2 among Swiss tennis players to 17-time major winner Federer — in their 10 previous matches. He hadn’t lost a head-to-head since 2006 and had won 11 straight sets between them.
The win “brings back the memories from 12 months ago with Rafa,” he said. “We are midway through the tournament but it feels like a final to me.”
Djokovic next faces Tomas Berdych, the 2010 Wimbledon finalist who advanced with a 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (13) win over South Africa’s Kevin Anderson.
Wawrinka was cramping and needed massages on both legs at the changeovers in the fifth set. Late in the match, he was pulling his foot up behind him to stretch his thighs between points. He was so tired he decided not to challenge a decision on a call that went against him — wrongly, according to TV replays.
But he didn’t think it made a difference in the end. “In five sets, five hours, you always have some opportunity to win a set or to win the match,” he said. “If you don’t take it, he’s going to take it.
“It’s by far the best match I ever played, especially in five sets against the No. 1 player... full house. At the end, I was really, really close. For sure, I’m really sad.... But I think there is more positive than negative.”
Despite the defeat, Wawrinka believed that the way he had played against Djokovic could spur him on to bigger and better things.
“I think I can use it, I hope I will use it,” he said. “I think it’s important if I want to keep improving myself, my game, to try to come back closer to the top 10.”
On Sunday, the first set was a real collector's item. Not only did Djokovic lose his serve three times, after three previous matches in which he had not been broken at all, but he kept on losing his footing.
Normally the best mover on the tour, he was slipping and sliding around as if the court were covered in Vaseline. At the end of the first set, he sent a member of his team sprinting off to get him a new pair of shoes, and once he had pulled them on, there was a new assurance about his footwork.
“I changed the shoes,” he said, “but to be honest that’s not the reason why I started to do better. I just refocused. I’ve been in those situations before. I was just outplayed by my opponent.
“He was better on the court for the first hour-and-a-half, no question about it. In this circumstances when you’re not playing the way you want to play, you just try to fight and hope for the best,” Novak said.
Indeed, Djokovic has been in those situations many times. He is the master of escapology, a man who often seems to wait until he is in the most desperate of positions before he unleashes his most destructive tennis.
“It’s amazing how he does it,” said Mats Wilander, a three-time winner of this event. “When he’s in trouble, he says to himself, ‘OK, my expectations of winning are zero’. And the chances are you relax and play much better from there.”