By Helen Gilbert
Defending Australian Open men’s champion Novak Djokovic was tested to the limits in a thrilling encounter with lucky loser Amer Delic on Friday, with the Serb escaping with a 6-2 4-6 6-3 7-6(4) victory.
The No.3 seed was pushed the distance in his three-hour duel with Delic who, theoretically, should not have been in the main draw.
The Bosnia-born American fell at the final hurdle in qualifying, but was thrown a lucky loser lifeline when German Nicolas Kiefer withdrew with a left ankle injury.
Since then, Delic battled his way through two energy-sapping five-set matches, disposing of Taylor Dent and No.28 seed Paul-Henri Mathieu along the way.
Today’s clash with the current title holder promised to be a scintillating affair; Delic has one of the biggest serves on the tour, and his form over the past week has improved match by match.
Despite the hype, the first set was somewhat of a disappointment, as Delic appeared fatigued and had trouble with his backhand. The Serb capitalised on the error-strewn performance and snapped up the set in a whisker over 30 minutes.
Delic steeled himself for a comeback in the second set, immediately putting the world No.3 on the defensive with a barrage of ferocious shots and stealing a break.
Delic then dived for an impossible volley, managing to hit a winner. His camp fist-pumped their chests; Djokovic could only applaud. The American then followed it up with an equally glorious backhand winner down the line, edged ahead, and the match was soon level at a set apiece.
After the Serb took possession of the third set, Delic’s feet began playing up in the fourth, and he required a medical time-out to treat what appeared to be a blister of gargantuan proportions.
Whatever the trainer did, it did the trick. Delic was soon chasing down everything, and Djokovic was soon serving to stay in the fourth set. A challenge-littered tie-break ensued, but Djokovic showed his class, and Delic’s Australian Open campaign was over.
Djokovic, who warmly embraced Delic at the end of the match, will face either Mardy Fish or Marcos Baghdatis in the fourth round.
Speaking after the match, Djokovic said: "I need some matches like this to feel really what is Grand Slam all about. It's about those long four, five set matches on the heat like this. I didn't really plan to be that long on the court. You always want to finish the job as soon as possible. The positive thing is that I got more time out there, and [I'm] looking forward to the upcoming match."
Delic served 16 aces to Djokovic’s 11, but the American had 56 unforced errors to Djokovic’s 27
Delic’s average first serve speed was 206km/h, and his fastest serve of the match was 224km/h
Djokovic capitalised on three of eight break point chances, while Delic could only convert one of his nine opportunities
The fourth and final set lasted 61 minutes