January 22, 2018
Novak Djokovic used to do this to his opponents. Now he knows what it feels like.
Hyeon Chung is the man with all the hot shots right now. We saw it in this stunning 7-6 (4), 7-5, 7-6 (3) victory against one of the game’s greats.
The South Korean can draw you scampering for a drop shot, then lob you mockingly back in the opposite direction.
He can send you way out wide beyond your comfort zone. Then he makes you do it all again on the other side. Chung pulled Djokovic this way and that, stretching him painfully. And here’s the thing: Novak’s renowned elasticity doesn’t take the pressure quite so well these days.
Blisters on the foot, lingering pain in the elbow, frustration at being less than he used to be…the pain was written in the face of the man who has breezed this tournament no fewer than six times.
Chung took control with the same brand of fearless stroke-play that won him the Next Generation ATP Finals in Milan a few months back – and helped defeat the highly-rated Alexander Zverev in the last round.
Unfortunately, he is not entirely without nerves if he stops briefly to admire the view. So it was at 4-0 in the first, 4-1 ahead in the second, 3-1 up in the third. Each time the 21-year-old allowed Djokovic to battle back to parity.
But in the first two sets, Chung then came to his senses once more, raised his level and came through when it mattered, sending Djokovic sprawling or making in former world number one yell out in anger. It happened all over again in the third.
Novak’s torment was more than emotional, as the appearance of the trainer at the end of the first set showed. There was treatment on a painful foot, then the elbow that has kept Novak out for so long.
And you wondered at times, as he fell behind in the second, whether Djokovic would see out the match at all, such was the trouble he seemed to be in.
Something of the warrior is still there, however. And the Serb certainly made a match of it. Even though Novak was feeling his elbow again in the eighth game, and faced a break point to trail 3-5, he summoned the best of himself to level at 4-4.
But maybe it was unrealistic to win from two sets down, after so long out and still playing in pain. Deep down Djokovic probably knew it, much as he was determined to play with pride and hope for his opponent’s psychological collapse, with victory so close.
No such implosion began within the Asian. Instead he went 6-5 ahead with some more awesome defence and cross-court precision. Novak served to stay in the match. Could he prolong his own agony?
He could, but only as far as the tie-break, where Chung demonstrated a ruthlessness that could take him far. Crushing power from the Chung racquet sent him 3-0 up in the blink of an eye.
Djokovic dug deep to level at 3-3. But as usual in this match, he was playing catch-up and didn’t know the luxury of a lead.
Chung raised the pace, increased his painful stranglehold, and ran away 7-3 in the breaker to take the match. Incredible stuff. And you had to wonder whether Novak’s body will allow him to win another Slam in time. For now, let’s just marvel at Chung, the game’s newest star, and enjoy his adventure.
Meanwhile Dominic Thiem was defeated by another underdog – the amusingly-named Tennys Sandgren 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-7 (7), 6-3. And Sandgren, the world 97 who had never won a Slam before this tournament, couldn’t believe what he had done.
The American said: ‘I don’t know if this is a dream or not. I knew I had to take my chances, he is a heck of a player. Thankfully it worked out in the end. This is my fifth Australian Open and I’ve lost in the “quallies” every year except this one. Now I’m in the quarter-final.’
Angelique Kerber, who might just be the best bet for the title here, survived a scare against Su-wei Hsieh, having soundly beaten Maria Sharapova in the previous round.
The German lost the first set 4-6 but rallied her way to a 7-5, 6-2 recovery win, progressing with a visible sigh of relief.