“One of the most difficult challenges in sports to be playing him here.”

Novak Djokovic’s next challenger, Alexander Zverev isn’t mincing his words. His mission? To defeat the world No.1 at Australian Open 2021.

The tennis world is running out of superlatives to describe Djokovic: Gladiatorial, herculean, perfection, from another planet, you name it.

Djokovic is chasing an unprecedented ninth AO crown, but hit a considerable stumbling block in the third round when he led American Taylor Fritz by two sets before disaster struck for Djokovic in the form of a suspected abdominal muscle tear.

The 33-year-old laboured in significant pain through the next two sets, somehow finding the mental and physical resources to overcome the 27th seed 7-6(1) 6-4 3-6 4-6 6-2.

The Serb said he “will remember this forever”, taking huge pride from the battle.

Without hitting a ball in two subsequent days and exploring every option to boost his recovery, Djokovic arrived at Melbourne Park for his fourth-round clash with the big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic still unsure of his chances to take to court.

But as we have learned, you don’t count Novak out.

Visibly in pain, grimacing on several shots, but still producing his immense elasticity, the defending champion withstood 26 aces and 50 aces flung from the racket of former world No.3 Raonic.

The 7-6(4) 4-6 6-1 6-4 triumph was Djokovic’s 300th Grand Slam match victory.

With so much history on the line, Djokovic simply won’t quit despite the discomfort as he tries to close the gap between himself and Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (who own 20 majors each) in the all-time tally of Grand Slam singles titles won.

“If I’m part of any other tournament other than Grand Slam, I definitely wouldn’t be playing,” said the 17-time major champion.

“But it’s a Grand Slam. It matters a lot to me at this stage of my career, of course. I want to do everything possible in this very short amount of time to get on the court.”

Zverev, meanwhile, wants to truly demonstrate he’s a major contender.

The world No.7 stands at 2-5 in his head-to-head record against Djokovic, yet has become a frequent fixture in the latter stages of Grand Slams. He no longer endures the prolonged, nerve-riddled earlier rounds of previous Slam campaigns.

The US Open finalist (he was two points from taking home a maiden major) is efficiently rattling through the draw at Melbourne Park, claiming all 12 sets he’s competed in.

“There’s probably going to be more rallies, gruelling rallies, exhausting, and it’s going to be demanding from my side really from back of the court. He moves very well for his height, his size, but he’s also one of the best servers we’ve got in the game. He’s very complete, all-around player,” said Djokovic, who edged the German 6-7(3) 6-2 7-5 at ATP Cup earlier this month.

“It’s in really God’s hands where my condition goes from today, whatever is happening in there (body), feel even 10 percent better than I did today, if that’s the case, I like my chances.

“I don’t expect anything less than a big battle than it was a few weeks ago.”

Despite Djokovic’s physical ailments, Zverev is also expecting a titanic contest in the last eight.

“This is his favourite court, this is his favourite tournament. To be able to have a chance against him, you have to be playing extremely well,” Zverev said.

“You have to be playing aggressive tennis, being the one that dominates. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

The 23-year-old’s two victories over Djokovic include milestone moments for Zverev, in the 2017 Rome Masters final and the 2018 ATP Finals silverware showdown.

On both of those occasions the German was a giant on serve. He’ll need to hit his spots, and keep the hampered Djokovic on the run, to have a chance to returning to the Australian Open semifinals for the second straight year.

Physically hampered or not, Djokovic, at Rod Laver Arena, is still the main man at AO 2021.

Source: Alex Sharp