Two days after asserting he “definitely” tore a muscle, Novak Djokovic returned to Rod Laver Arena Sunday night to collect a milestone 300th major match win by moving to 12-0 against Milos Raonic. Though there were occasional signs of discomfort from Djokovic, the world No. 1 defeated the 14th-seeded Canadian, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, to confirm an Australian Open quarterfinal clash with No. 6 seed Alexander Zverev.
"There was no preparation for this match. I used every hour I had since the last match to recover," Djokovic shared with Brad Stine in his post-match interview. "To put myself in a position where I had a possibility to compete, my physio did a great job.
"If it's any other tournament than a Grand Slam, I would withdraw from the event, for sure. But I want to give my best to try and recover and get on the court. I didn't know before I finished my warm-up whether I was going to play or not."
Djokovic, who entered the court with a sizeable bandage on the right side of his abdomen, was understandably reserved about offering an update on the issue in his press conference.
"I understand that you want to know, but I really don't want to get into it what it is. Yes, I did an MRI, I did everything, I know what it is, but I don't want to talk about it now. I'm still in the tournament. I hope you guys understand that," he said.
"It's kind of a gamble. That's what medical team told me. It's really unpredictable, you can't know what's going to happen with you once you're on the court. You're not gonna save yourself or think about going for that point or this shot or that shot. It just pulls you. It's normal. Playing at this level, you just want to give it all. It could cause much more damage than it is at the moment, but it also could go in a good direction."
In the first set, Djokovic missed break point in games seven and nine. The eight-time champion was at ease until just before leveling for 5-5, when he clutched the covered area and stretched it out. When Raonic next stepped to the line, the Serbian came up grimacing after being yanked out wide to his forehand side, dropping his racquet as he avoided jamming into the sponsor boards.
Once the two reached a tie-break, three consecutive unforced errors put Raonic in an intimidating hole. Djokovic meanwhile, shook off whatever had bothered him, moving without caution on the baseline. His steady ball-striking propelled him to a one-set lead, and compared to 48 hours earlier, was generating more pop on serve. In his final three sets against Taylor Fritz on Friday, Djokovic averaged 114 m.p.h. on his first serve, and tonight, elevated that category by three m.p.h.
Raonic had two successive break points in the third game of the second set. While he missed and had his right ankle taped in the next changeover, the former Wimbledon finalist had another chance to strike, breaking for 3-2 thanks to a cross-court forehand winner. Djokovic pulled up again in the seventh game, this time to his left after leaning into a backhand, and Raonic would serve out the set, 6-4, finishing with just four unforced errors.
One shot that Djokovic will look to continue testing ahead of his match with Zverev is his forehand up the line, as he was unable to add it into the fold against Raonic. But he more than made up with it with his two-hander, creating a second early break chance in the third with a supreme redirect. Djokovic’s deep backhand on the following point drew a forehand error, and the 33-year-old kept pounding away. Two successive forehand return winners set up him for a shot at a 5-1 advantage, a moment he would seize.
Raonic, favoring his wrapped ankle at times, did well to fend off two break points to stay in front for seven games, but it felt like he was hanging on by a thread. Djokovic reeled him in to put the match on his racquet, and closed out the round-of-16 encounter in just under three hours.
Djokovic is now three victories away from lifting his 18th major crown, which would move him within two of the all-time men’s record shared between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. If Djokovic comes through against Zverev, whom he recently beat at the ATP Cup, the top seed will return to the portion of the Happy Slam no one has ever stopped him at before.
A semifinalist last year, Zverev defeated No. 23 seed Dusan Lajovic, 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-3, in two hours and 21 minutes. Having lost his opening set of the event to Marcos Giron, the German has since reeled off 12 straight.