You wouldn’t quite call it the big dog limping amid yapping puppies — these puppies pulverize more than yap — but the final 16 of the Australian Open men’s singles draw could entice a cartoonist. It’s 35-year-old Novak Djokovic as historic centerpiece and questionable favorite with Djokovic’s left hamstring as antihero, with only one other player who has surpassed a Grand Slam quarterfinal, 12 players yet to see a 26th birthday and a whopping four players from the upstart little tennis country known as the United States.
The women’s final 16? That doozy boasts five Grand Slam winners, five of the world’s top seven players, the protracted search of a two-time Grand Slam finalist and former No. 1 (Karolina Pliskova), a marvel whose teen years won’t end until March 2024 (Coco Gauff) and a player even younger (17-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova). It’s rich in nationality clusters: three Czechs, two Chinese, two Poles, two Belarusians and two Americans (Gauff and Jessica Pegula).
When Iga Swiatek plays Elena Rybakina, that pits the dominant No. 1 and reigning French and U.S. Open champion against the reigning Wimbledon champion. When Jelena Ostapenko plays Gauff, that pits a player who won the French at 20 (Ostapenko in 2017) against a player who reached the French final at 18 (Gauff in 2022).
But when Djokovic plays 23-year-old Australian Alex de Minaur in their first meeting — “I’ve watched him play many times,” Djokovic told reporters in Melbourne — the attention might go to a bandage and a trivia question. The bandage drapes the left hamstring, whose infirmity might have made Djokovic’s three-set win over Grigor Dimitrov in Saturday’s third round sort of a surprise. “If I lost one of those sets,” Djokovic said, “you know, we could have gone the distance — God knows how long.”
Those sets went 7-6 (9-7), 6-3, 6-4. The masterful quashing of Dimitrov’s three set points might have saved the whole Djokovic ship.
As Djokovic keeps aiming for a record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title — and a record-extending 10th Australian championship — he dwells in a remaining field that might have made him a decided favorite were it not for that hamstring. But it’s a puzzle because he hasn’t lost in Melbourne since — wait, trivia question: Who last beat him there?
It stretches back through 2022, when he didn’t play because he got deported over his vaccination status. It extends back through 2021, 2020 and 2019, when he won all 21 matches and all three titles, including one of the best matches anybody ever played, his rout of Rafael Nadal in the 2019 final.
It gets to the fourth round in 2018 and to a player who was one hell of a comet: Hyeon Chung.
In that tournament, the then-21-year-old South Korean wowed crowds, charmed viewers with his glasses, showed top-shelf steeliness, brought freshness and upped his ranking from No. 58 to No. 29. (It would reach No. 19 later in 2018.) He beat both Zverev brothers, Medvedev, Djokovic and surprise quarterfinalist Tennys Sandgren. His win over Djokovic went 7-6 (7-4), 7-5, 7-6 (7-3). It ended with Djokovic raving and Chung saying, “Today my dreams come true,” and noting that he might ask for a photo with Djokovic someday. (He already had one with Rafael Nadal.)
Chung lost in a semifinal to Roger Federer, 6-1, 5-2 (retired), after which reporters got a garish description of Chung’s blisters-upon-blisters and how injections hadn’t worked. From there, Federer won his 20th and final Grand Slam title, Djokovic has tacked on nine Grand Slam titles and the mean injuries started coming for Chung, with his back causing the longest trouble. When he emerged in Seoul in September to team with fellow South Korean Soonwoo Kwon in doubles, he said to the ATP Tour, “I’m feeling just so happy to play tennis again.” He remains just 26 years old.
How well he would fit, if fate were nicer, among the youngsters in the 2023 tournament, which also feels a little bit like Meet the Americans. When No. 89 Ben Shelton (age 20) plays No. 67 J.J. Wolf (age 24), that match will present language bizarre to most of the world yet familiar here: a Florida Gator (Shelton) against an Ohio State Buckeye (Wolf). Rope in the gathering excellence of No. 35 Tommy Paul and No. 31 Sebastian Korda and you have the most male Americans left at this point since 2004, when they were Andre Agassi, James Blake, Andy Roddick and Robby Ginepri.
Yet even amid a bunch of highly ranked Europeans who have done big things if not the biggest things — including 24-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, 21-year-old Jannik Sinner of Italy, 25-year-old Andrey Rublev of Russia, 19-year-old Holger Rune of Denmark and 25-year-old Hubert Hurkacz of Poland — Djokovic’s plight commands the tennis historian view, especially given last year’s deportation. He’s the last of the old guard long resisting (and mauling) this young wave, with Federer retired, Nadal hurt and gone in the second round and Andy Murray’s gnarly path with a metal hip complete after three rounds, 14 sets and one 4 a.m. finish.
It’s Djokovic — and that hamstring.
To a reporter’s question about how it goes with that pain through a match, Djokovic elaborated. “It kind of always starts well,” he said, “the last few matches, including this one.” He spoke of “a lot of cream,” which he said “works for a little bit, and then it doesn’t.” He said it “requires a lot of energy that’s being spent from my side mentally and physically.”
He called the first round “good,” said the second round groaned with “a couple of moments really bad” and said the third round mimicked the second. Even an impressive win over 28th-ranked Dimitrov “kind of went up and down,” a testament to his customary standard given he has lost only one set.
This all has lent a different tenor to Week 2 and whether he can surpass de Minaur, then perhaps the scary Rublev (who has lost one set), then what would become a staggering 33rd Grand Slam final berth. They’re all a little beaten up out there, goes the old saying, and now they include the guy climbing the rarest air and the guy who last beat him in Australia five long years ago.