Top seed Novak Djokovic was given an almighty scare before recording a five-set victory over Gilles Simon 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 in the fourth round of the Australian Open on Sunday.
In four hours and 32 minutes, the pair played out a truly incredible match, one in which Djokovic made more than 100 unforced errors.
Djokovic had only lost to Simon once previously, but the counter-punching Frenchman put up a fight few would have predicted. For the first time in many months, Djokovic looked beatable, but Simon couldn’t quite get the job done.
The story of the first set was one of missed opportunities for Simon.
After succumbing to an early break, Simon took advantage when Djokovic became tentative when 3-1 up, breaking back before holding serve to restore parity. Simon’s speed and anticipation was giving Djokovic problems, and in an epic seventh game that lasted in excess of 11 minutes, the 14th seed had four break point chances but could not capitalise.
He would pay the price for his failure to grab the chance when Djokovic did not need a second invitation and broke Simon to go 5-3 up. With Djokovic serving for the set, Simon had two chances to break back but again couldn’t convert. And, at the fourth time of asking, Djokovic secured the opener 6-3.
Djokovic raced through his service games in the second set, and while creating opportunities against the Simon serve, he was ever so wasteful.
Three break points passed him by in the third game, six in the ninth game and a further two in the 11th game. The man known to be so clinical simply couldn’t finish the job.
As Djokovic’s frustration grew so his forehand became tighter and the pace of the game slower. Instead of finishing points with brutality Djokovic looked to employ drop shots that simply weren’t coming off. He allowed Simon to stay in points, and with the Serb making 24 unforced errors the set remained close.
It was one such drop shot that gave Simon a mini-break in the tiebreaker. It was followed up by a rally of the highest quality and it was Simon who closed it out with a wonderful backhand crosscourt. Simon had control and he didn’t relinquish it, taking the tiebreak 7-1.
Simon didn’t have a single break point in the set, Djokovic had 11 in a set in which he only lost four points on his serve but somehow surrendered the set.
Djokovic broke early in the third, but any thoughts that his game would settle as a result were misplaced and Simon soon broke back.
The top seed had three chances to break once more in the sixth game of the set, but each time he fell short. While it would be doing Simon a disservice to say that Djokovic was handing him points, it was Djokovic errors rather than Simon winners that were keeping the Frenchman in it.
Simon would live to regret a meekly attempted drop shot early in the tenth game, giving Djokovic a look in which the Serb responded to, engineering a set point, and, this time, he would not let the opportunity slip by.
Both players had their chances early in the fourth set, but it was Simon who made his move in the ninth game. Having seen six break points pass him by, the Frenchman capitalised on the back of a string of errors from Djokovic to go 5-4 up and one game away from forcing a decider.
Serving for the set, Djokovic twice denied Simon, desperately trying to stay in the set, but the number one’s game had deserted him and Simon took the set.
Djokovic has a 25-8 record in five-set matches and he demonstrated why by putting the pressure on Simon from the outset.
A break of the Simon serve began to seem inevitable, and Djokovic grabbed it in the fourth game to go 3-1. The floodgates began to open, with Djokovic securing a second break to take a 5-1 advantage.
But serving for the match, Djokovic suddenly found himself on the backfoot and 0-40 down. At 15-40, error number 95 from Djokovic handed Simon a break back. It was almost unbelievable.
Djokovic had two match points on the Simon serve, but, while he brought up his 100th unforced error for the match, he could not pull himself over the line. And then he did. With his third match point, the world number one was through, finally.
Djokovic will face Kei Nishikori in the quarter-finals.
Catch all the action of the Australian Open from now until January 31st LIVE and EXCLUSIVE on FOX Sports and FOX Sports 2. FOX Sports subscribers can watch all matches free on FOX Sports Play or on www.FoxSportsAsia.com