At Melbourne Cricket Ground, located just a few hundred metres away from Rod Laver Arena, a century is a good thing, but for Novak Djokovic, the century of unforced errors he struck in his five-set victory over Gilles Simon on Sunday were problematic.
The world No1 described his four-hour 32-minute last-16 battle against Simon as a “match to forget” but that 6-3, 6-7 (1), 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win also ushered Djokovic into his 27th straight grand slam quarter-final, to tie Jimmy Connors in second place for the most consecutive major last-eight appearances.
Simon, the world No15, had told French media before the match that he had the entire locker room behind him as most of the players were tired of seeing Djokovic win all the time.
“I don't know which locker room he's talking about. Women's locker room I'm pretty popular, I know that,” quipped Djokovic after the clash.
The humour the top seed showed in his post-match press conference was a stark contrast to the fits of rage he experienced on the court as he struck one error after the other frustrated by Simon’s counter-punching.
Each rally felt like it was a match within itself as the ball went back on forth over 30 times per point and each set felt like it deserved a trophy ceremony at the end of it.
“I know a lot of players wanted me to win this match. A lot of players will feel better with Novak out of the draw. That's normal because he's the best player in the world,” explained Simon, who is now 1-10 head-to-head against Djokovic.
“I know exactly what I was doing, but I won't say it. I had a plan. I know him well. We all know which player he is and how hard it is to find any solution against him, to somehow stop the fight and feel better on the court. I think I worked on it good today. He made 100 unforced errors. That's a good number for me, not for him. But unfortunately was not enough.”
The opening set was a drawn out tug of war that gave a clear idea of what the rest of the showdown was going to look like. Djokovic broke at love for 3-1 but Simon broke right back and drew level for 3-all.Tactics, man. TACTICS. Reminder to Novak Djokovic re: break points. pic.twitter.com/26EvgDbGm9— Courtney Nguyen (@FortyDeuceTwits) January 24, 2016
The Serb then needed an 11-minute game that saw him save four break points and go through seven deuces before he held serve, sarcastically raising his arms in victory to celebrate.
Djokovic then broke in the following game for a 5-3 lead. Serving for the set, the top seed had to save two break points before he finally sealed it on his fourth opportunity.
Simon was unfazed and snatched the second-set tiebreak 7-1, ending Djokovic’s streak of 26 consecutive sets won, dating back to the ATP Finals in November.
Djokovic led 3-0 in the third but Simon clawed his way back for 3-all. The Frenchman was broken though in game 10 as Djokovic edged ahead.
The world No1 needed another marathon eight-minute game to hold in the opening game of the fourth and was broken in the ninth game to give Simon a 5-4 advantage which was enough for him take the set and force a decider.
Djokovic raced to a 5-1 lead in the fifth but once again, a stubborn Simon pegged him back, and saved two match points to hold for 3-5 – a game which witnessed the Serb’s 100th unforced error.
Serving for the match for a second time, Djokovic aced to get triple match point and he sealed the encounter with backhand winner. He finished the clash a bizarre 6/25 on break point conversions.
In his on-court chat with Jim Courier, someone from the crowd yelled “no more drop shots” at Djokovic, who had done terribly on most of his drop shot attempts throughout the match.
“I hate to say it but you’re absolutely right,” responded Djokovic to the fan in the stands.
The 28-year-old later described his horror show with the drop shots as a “brain freeze”, admitting he was trying to shorten the rallies with Simon forcing him to hit an extra shot, but his strategy wasn’t working.
Djokovic, who faces No7 seed Kei Nishikori in the quarter-finals on Tuesday, says he’s not worried about playing as poorly in his next match.
“Actually, it gives me great joy to know that I can't get worse than that, than what I played today,” Djokovic said with a smile. “It doesn't concern me for the next one.
“It's not a very pleasant feeling when you're not playing well. But certainly it's a good feeling when you win not playing well.”
Roger Federer, who had a post-midnight finish in beating David Goffin 6-2, 6-1, 6-4, said enough credit was not being given to Simon in how the Frenchman forced Djokovic to play badly.
“I just feel people talking like Novak had a horrible day. Of course he can play better, but on the other side, you have somebody (Simon) who has the fastest legs and he knows exactly what he's doing out there, and it worked almost to the very end. So it was very close for Novak, and he knows that,” said Federer, who faces sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych in the quarters on Tuesday.
Simon, who has had wins over Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal, says his strength is that he doesn’t fear the top players.
“Like I just see them as humans and tennis players. They are fantastic. They can play an amazing tennis, but they still have some weaknesses on the court,” said the 31-year-old.
He says the scary part about Djokovic though is that he continues to get better.
“He's improving year after year. That's terrible to say because he's already No1. He's improving, so I try to improve also,” added Simon.