Novak Djokovic learned first-hand at the Australian Open this morning just why Gilles Simon has been nicknamed “The Grinder” on the ATP Tour.
The world number one needed five sets in order to bypass the 14th seed into his 27th consecutive Grand Slam quarter-final at the Australian Open, and of the 11 victories that he has recorded against Simon through 12 previous meetings, this was by far the least impressive.
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Djokovic made an astonishing 100 unforced errors through the course of the four hour, 32 minute encounter on Rod Laver Arena, he converted only six of 25 break-point opportunities and missed 15 drop-shots off the backhand side alone. The Serb consistently struggled to hit past his ultra-fit, counter-punching opponent, and when presented with opportunities to execute winners, the guile and ruthlessness which helped Djokovic to 82 victories in 88 matches in 2015 was conspicuously absent.
This was, by some distance, the most vulnerable Djokovic has looked at Grand Slam level in over a year and his quarter-final opponent, Kei Nishikori, who earlier dispatched ninth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets, must have been rubbing his hands while watching the top seed toil on television.
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“Playing against a player like Gilles you can expect a lot of rallies,” Djokovic commented after the match.
“He always makes you play an extra shot. It was physically demanding. He is probably the best counter-puncher we have on tour. He is not overwhelmed by big players. I hope I will be able to decrease my unforced error count against Kei.”
He will have to – for although Simon is rightly commended for having forced Djokovic to hit so many shots this morning, no player raked inside the world’s top-15 should lose a match against an opponent whose unforced error count runs into triple digits.
Simon possesses fighting-spirit and athleticism in spades, but he has consistently shown himself to be lacking in the kind of mental strength required to close-out high-profile matches in big tournaments as well as the technical quality needed to end decisive points early in the rally. In other words, there is a reason why Simon has never gone further than the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam.
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The same cannot be said about Nishikori, who beat Djokovic in four sets in the semi-finals of the 2014 U.S. Open in order to become the first ever male player from an Asian country to reach a Grand Slam singles final. The 26-year-old possesses all the footspeed, fitness and positional awareness required to defend in the manner which Simon did this morning, as well as an ability to step inside of the baseline and hit balls on the rise in order to control points and execute winners of his own.
In this context it seems safe to suggest that Djokovic will exit the Australian Open in the last-eight for a fourth time in eight seasons if he gifts Nishikori as many free points as he did Simon. Nishikori, who ranked as high as number four in the world last March, has won seven times on the ATP Tour over the last three seasons, he triumphed in 54 of 70 matches through 2015 and his 29-11 win-loss record on hard-court last season rivals that of any player on Tour, bar Djokovic (50-4).
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The fact that Nishikori trails Djokovic 5-2 in the head-to-head stakes means that the world number one comes into the match as a legitimate favorite and he is unlikely to perform as poorly as he did this morning in the quarter-finals. However, one cannot underestimate how mentally draining maintaining it must be for Djokovic and Serena Williams to attempt to maintain the almost perfect level of performance that they achieved in 2015 into a new season and the imprecise nature of the Serb’s performance against Simon screamed of mental tiredness.
Perhaps it is the case that Djokovic has already gotten the one bum-note that he will play at the Australian Open out of his system, but if his performance drops even a couple of percent against an on form Nishikori, he can rest assured of an early exit.
[Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images]