Novak Djokovic’s hamstring injury remains the biggest mystery hanging over the Australian Open, with the nine-time champ clearly limited during his third-round clash tonight – yet still rolling.
Plus Andy Murray is trying to back up from his 4am epic against the man who ‘retired’ him here four years ago, while Alexei Popyrin has failed to claim a spot in the fourth round.
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DJOKOVIC IN ACTION AMID INJURY FEARS, MURRAY STARTS SLOWLY
Fears over Novak Djokovic’s hamstring injury grew louder pre-match after a picture of him practicing for the third-round clash with Grigor Dimitrov was revealed.
Djokovic was seen with much heavier tape up and down his leg as he prepared on Rod Laver Arena.
Aussie tennis great Wally Masur declared Djokovic was merely a “55-45 favourite” heading into the match.
But the Serb removed immediate fears about his injury in the opening game, becoming the first man to break Dimitrov’s serve all tournament.
“He just looks so well-balanced. That backhand down the line – man, he’s dialled in,” Aussie great Mark Philippoussis raved on commentary.
Dimitrov was able to save a set point thanks to a quality backhand of his own at 30-40 and 5-3, then a second off a strong second serve (long a flaw of his against Djokovic), and a third with an ace.
At one point Djokovic chose not to slide for a ball on his right side, perhaps due to his hamstring issue, and a few points later stopped mid-point after a worrying yelp, then limping somewhat.
Another scary stumble saw Dimitrov earn a break point at 30-40 – on which Djokovic received a time violation – and the Serb then sent a forehand long to give up the break for 5-5. It was the first time Djokovic had been broken all tournament.
“He’s definitely 20 per cent off the boil from where he was,” Robbie Koenig said on commentary.
In the ensuing game Djokovic gave up on the point totally twice, then complained about the previous time violation to the chair umpire.
“Good, good, good. Good job. First time in the entire set, break point, you give me a time violation. Right when I was about to throw up the ball. Well done,” Djokovic told John Blom.
Djokovic then had to save a set point at 30-40, doing so with an ace, then another with a body serve before forcing the tiebreak with his third ace of the game.
Just when things started to look bad, the nine-time champion lifted, taking a 5-2 lead in the tiebreak. It soon disappeared, with Dimitrov getting things back on serve, before the pair traded set point saves.
Eventually Djokovic’s fifth – the set’s eighth – came after a 23-shot rally. After 77 minutes, he came into the net (risking a passing shot) but managed to get a racquet on the ball, dropping it over for a 7-6(7) set.
He then collapsed to the court, exhausted.
Djokovic called for the physio and received work on his left hamstring during a medical timeout.
He had the first break opportunities of the second set in a lengthy fourth game, but Dimitrov was brilliant to hold – after one point leaving the Serb stretched out and sore on the floor. It took the pair 31 minutes just to reach 2-2.
Another break chance at 30-40 and 2-3, thanks to Dimitrov’s 10th unforced error of the set, was claimed by Djokovic after a lengthy backhand rally.
From there the Serb cruised to a 6-3 set win and what suddenly felt like an insurmountable lead – even moreso when he broke after an 11-minute opening game to lead the third set 1-0.
Summing up the match, Dimitrov gave up another break, then clawed one back – and then was broken to love as Djokovic limped to his bench.
Demon dominates in straight set win | 01:08
Meanwhile on Show Court 1, Andy Murray didn’t exactly look brilliant early in his return to action following that 4am finish against Thanasi Kokkinakis.
Murray, who was spotted at Melbourne Park just four hours after he left the grounds following his second round match, is battling Roberto Bautista Agut who beat him here back in 2019 – when tournament organisers thought Murray was retiring and played a tribute to him post-match.
On Saturday night, the Scot lost 11 of the first 12 points to quickly fall behind 3-0, then was broken again before dropping the opening set 6-1.
Bautista Agut then got the opening break of the second set and consolidated for 3-1, with Murray looking very much like a man with a metal hip who has already played 10 hours of competitive tennis this week.
Yet Murray somehow recovered, perhaps due to an incredibly loud crowd in his favour, and in a tense tiebreak came back from 4-6 down, then took advantage of a bad error by the Spaniard on set point to win it 7-6(7).
Murray’s energy looked to be running out in a third set, won 6-3 by Bautista Agut, leaving the Briton needing to win a third consecutive five-setter to keep his tournament alive.
On the women’s side an upset was brewing with No.4 seed Caroline Garcia dropping the first set to unseeded German Laura Siegemund, though the Frenchwoman quickly recovered and took the ensuing sets and the match, 1-6 6-3 6-3.
The heavy favourite to go all the way and claim a 10th title down under, Djokovic’s hopes took a blow when he suffered a hamstring injury in Adelaide on January 9.
He battled through the pain on that occasion, saving championship points to beat US prodigy Seb Korda in the final.
The 35-year-old cruised past Roberto Carballes Baena in a straight-sets win in the first round.
But he needed a medical time-out for treatment on the injury in his next match, dropping a set and looking in discomfort throughout his 6-1, 6-7(5), 6-2, 6-0 win over French qualifier Enzo Couacaud.
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After that match, Djokovic revealed his concern over the injury.
“I am worried,” he said. “I mean, I cannot say that I’m not. I have reason to be worried. But at the same time I have to accept the circumstances and try to adjust myself with my team.
“My physio and medical team has been doing everything possible so that I can be able to play every match,” Djokovic added. “There’s not much more to talk about. There’s two choices: leave it or keep going. So I’m going to keep going.”
Now, he faces a much tougher test than the opening two rounds, coming up against a former Australian Open semi-finalist and current 27th seed Grigor Dimitrov.
“I know matches are only going to get tougher for me from here. Two years ago I had kind of similar circumstances here in Australia with a different muscle where I had a tear and I had to deal with that. Somehow I pushed it through and won the tournament,” Djokovic said. “But it’s different now, obviously. I don’t know how my body’s going to react. I hope for the best.”
Zhu Lin’s emotional post-match interview | 01:29
Dimitrov has beaten Djokovic just once in 10 attempts – back in 2013 – and remarkably the former world number three has not won a ATP title since the ATP Finals in 2017.
But the 31-year-old has not dropped a set so far this tournament, and has faced just one break point in his two matches.
He needed just 1 hour and 34 minutes to rout Laslo Djere 6-3 6-2 6-0 in the second round, the fastest men’s match of the tournament so far.
Dimitrov also leads the men’s draw in unreturned first serves (59%), a stunning serving performance. Djokovic is one of the great returners of all time, but the extent to which his injury impacts his returns could prove decisive.
“I know him really well,” Djokovic said. “We are good friends off the court. Balkan brothers! Let the better player win.”
“I’m the worst athlete in the family!” | 00:42
‘IT’S A CIRCUS’: USA STAR EXPLODES
Lucky loser Michael Mmoh blew up deluxe at the chair umpire in his all-American clash with JJ Wolf at a boisterous KIA Arena, begging chair umpire Simon Cannavan to control a rocking crowd he labelled a ‘circus’.
Mmoh led 4-2 in the opening set before a woeful collapse as world no.67 Wolf won the next four-straight games to win the set 6-4.
Mmoh made just six winners to 15 unforced errors. But instead of worrying about his poor play, he vented his frustrations in the umpire’s direction, saying: “You’re doing a f***ing horrendous job controlling the crowd.
“Horrendous! Are you doing a good job? Controlling this crowd? Are you doing a good job? Yes or no?
“Yes or no? Are you doing a good job controlling this crowd? Yes or no? Control this crowd! Where is the supervisor?”
The umpire was heard saying: “I will do more if you want me to.”
Mmoh replied: “I want you to do a lot more. A lot more. Control the crowd! Control the damn crowd!”
As Mmoh walked back to court to begin the second set, he resumed his complaints, saying: “It’s a circus!”
Cannavan responded by addressing the crowd to call for respect.
“I could kindly ask you that the conversation level be lowered, please, as both players can hear what you’re saying, thank you,” said Cannavan.
But Mmoh’s horror collapse continued, losing the next five games before finally earning a hold to make it 5-1 in the second set.
He couldn’t find his way back into the match, however, as Wolf completed the rout 6-4 6-1 6-2.
Djoker advances despite hamstring scare | 01:12
STAR FUMES OVER ‘CHEATING’ AFTER CLAIMING UMPIRE ‘SLEEPING’ IN BIZARRE MOMENT
America’s Alison Riske-Amritraj has explained exactly what went down in her dramatic doubles blow-up against a chair umpire on Friday.
Riske-Amritraj hit a ball into the body of an opponent and apologised after the point, but umpire Nico Helwert bizarrely called a point penalty against her for hindrance (talking during the point).
Any replay would’ve shown Helwert was incorrect but he maintained his stance leaving Riske-Amritraj fuming.
“That’s f***ing ridiculous … is he sleeping?,” she fumed to a supervisor.
On Saturday she responded to a tweet about the issue, blaming the opposing player.
“She should have called it on herself & the umpire apologized for his incorrect ruling after, which I accepted,” she said.
“Poor sportsmanship and cheating happens all the time, especially at the junior level. Parents/players spend too much time, money & mental energy for that experience.
“As you can tell, I am extremely passionate about helping tennis’ future here. If you’re working on a compelling piece of line calling or VAR tech and need help funding/scaling please DM me.”
AUSTRALIAN OPEN NIGHT 6 – ORDER OF PLAY (All times AEDT)
Night session from 7pm
Rod Laver Arena
 Grigor Dimitrov (BUL) vs  Novak Djokovic (SRB) 6-7(7) 3-6
Magda Linette (POL) vs  Ekaterina Alexandrova
Show Court 1
Andy Murray (GBR) vs  Roberto Bautista Agut (ESP) 1-6 7-6(7)
John Cain Arena
Ben Shelton (USA) def Alexei Popyrin (AUS) 6-3 7-6(4) 6-4
 Caroline Garcia (FRA) def Laura Siegemund (GER) 1-6 6-3 6-3
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