He was restricted in all aspects of his game and while his serve speed didn’t suffer too much he nearly fell over in pain after serving on numerous occasions.
His famous ability to contort his body like elastic and lunge for balls became non-existent.
But he hung in there to not be totally obliterated in the fourth set, and then broke the 27th seeded American in the seventh game of the final set to keep his dream of winning a ninth Australian Open alive.
The 17-time grand slam winner then lost his first match point in the next game but eventually broke through a Fritz unforced error to win 7-6 (7-1), 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2 at 21 minutes past midnight on Saturday morning.
The win followed the small but loud crowd being booted from Rod Laver Arena at 11.30pm because Melbourne went into lockdown at 11.59pm.
“I just tried to stay in there, and I was hopeful that whatever is happening is going to feel better and towards the end of the fourth set it started to feel better. I just served and couldn’t do much on the return, I was going for my shots, hitting two first serves and it worked,” Djokovic said.
“This is one of the most special wins in my life.
“I don’t know if I will manage to recover from that [injury].”
Earlier on Friday, world No.7 and Australian Open sixth seed Alexander Zverev admitted the pain of losing the 2020 US Open final remained a key motivating factor in the first grand slam of the new year, while Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman was upset by a qualifier.
Zverev lost the US Open final – his first grand slam final – to Austria’s Dominic Thiem in a fifth set tie-breaker after the German won the first two sets of the match.
That loss has been a bitter pill Zverev is still swallowing, and his commanding win over Adrian Mannarino on Friday 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 took him one step closer to redemption.
“The US Open, as you said, was one of the greatest moments of my career but also one of the toughest moments in my career,” Zverev said after beating the No.32 seeded Frenchman on Rod Laver Arena. “I was two points away from winning my first grand slam, so I still had that in the back of my mind.
“I’m going to do everything I can to make it happen here maybe.”
Zverev hit the ball extremely sweetly through his third round match against Mannarino and joked he was hitting the ball so hard so he could get off the court quickly.
“Yeah, I mean very happy [with the win],” he said. “He [Mannarino] is someone I played three times and every time was a very long and difficult match. Today, I felt a bit lazy so I thought I’d hit the ball a bit harder so we don’t have to play for four hours, you guys don’t have to sit in the sun. So all good, I’m happy.”
The 23-year-old made the semi-finals of the Australian Open last year, which was then his best grand slam event result.
He lost to Thiem then, too, this time in four sets, having beaten Stan Wawrinka in the quarter finals.
Prior to that, he made the French Open quarter-finals twice, in 2018 and 2019, and the fourth round of Wimbledon and the US Open.
He will take on Dusan Lajovic in the fourth round after he beat Spain’s Pedro Martinez on Friday.
Meanwhile, in a huge upset, Argentina’s No.8 seed Diego Schwartzman lost to Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev, who is ranked No.112 in the world.
Schwartzman never looked in control, losing 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, with the Russian 27-year-old through to the fourth round in his first ever grand slam.
“I didn’t feel really good today. It was a difficult match. He was playing amazing tennis. Too many winners,” the Argentine said.
Then, in a showdown between two Canadians it was the lower-seeded (No. 20) Felix Auger-Allassime who beat No.11 seed Denis Shapovalov in straight sets , 7-5, 7-5, 6-3 to set up a match with Karatsev.
Earlier on Friday, 18th seed Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov beat Spain’s No. 15 seed Pablo Carreno Busta after the Spaniard retired sick, to become the first male player into the fourth round. Dimitrov was leading 6-0, 1-0 at the time.
Asked whether he noticed the Spaniard was sick, Dimitrov replied: “No, definitely not.
“I think the beginning of the match was very crucial for me, especially I would say [the] first four games were very, very important. I was just trying to stay as positive as I could, as focused as I could.
“Tough conditions. Obviously, the sun was coming out a little bit. It was heating up. I really wanted to minimise all the distractions. Eventually, I was able to really play a very consistent game. I think that might have played a certain role.”
Milos Raonic beat Hungarian Marton Fucsovics in four sets.
Anthony is a sports reporter at The Age.