Serbian star Novak Djokovic is the best men’s player in tennis but much of the world believes he’s pulled the wool over all our eyes.
A couple of days ago Novak Djokovic looked like he’d taken a cannon blast to his midsection.
This morning he wakes as the red-hot Australian Open favourite — but is still insisting a mystery abdominal injury the world number one insists would see him pull out of any tournament except a grand slam.
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There’s a conspiracy about Djokovic’s health that’s dominating the tennis world since he recovered from dropping sets three and four against Taylor Fritz to win in five and then almost looked his old self again in a four-set win against Milos Raonic on Sunday night.
Again Djokovic claimed he wasn’t sure if he’d even play against Raonic until he began his warm-up, but a dominant 7-6 4-6 6-1 6-4 win saw his odds for the tournament drop from $5 to $2.75.
It continued a crazy day of speculation around the Serbian superstar with few people actually sure of the true extent of his injury.
When he stepped onto the court for his fourth round clash with Raonic he appeared to move well, except for a period late in the first set when he appeared in discomfort.
As a box office drawcard with 17 grand slam titles to his name, the 33-year-old said the chance to win another major was worth the gamble as he risks potentially making the injury worse to lift a ninth Australian Open title.
Just don’t expect him to tell you exactly what’s wrong.
Djokovic snubbed the media when asked to enlighten the world on the specifics of his injury.
“I understand you want to know but I don’t want to get into it, what it is,” he said post-match. “Yes, I did an MRI and I know what it is but I don’t want to talk about it now, I’m still in the tournament so I hope you guys understand.
“It’s not ideal for me, I definitely have felt better before my third round match with Fritz. I didn’t know a few hours before I stepped onto the court tonight whether I was going to play or not. I didn’t hit a tennis ball yesterday. I tried to use every single hour possible to recover and give myself at least every little bit of a chance to step on the court.
“If I was a part of any other tournament except for a slam I wouldn’t be playing. But it’s a grand slam, it matters a lot to me at this stage of my career and I want to do everything possible in this short amount of time to get on the court.”
Djokovic added that he had to deal with the pain mentally but that the risks were worth it.
“The medical team told me that it is a gamble while I’m on the court,” he added. “It could cause much more damage, but it could go in a good direction. I won’t know until I stop taking pain killers, they kind of hide what is really happening.
“I talked a lot with medical teams, mine and one of the Australian Open. They share an opinion that there is a slim chance for me to miss an extended period of time. They don’t think it will jeopardise my season, maybe some tournaments afterwards.”
But in the lead up, during and after the match, the tennis world continued to debate Djokovic’s injury woes.
After appearing set to cruise to a straight sets victory over America’s Fritz on Friday night, Djokovic slipped and almost ended up in the splits, which appeared to cause the injury.
Djokovic fanned the flame that he might be forced to pull out of the tournament after tearing his muscle.
There was no doubt Djokovic was in discomfort in the match against Fritz but appeared to have a miraculous comeback to be ready for fourth round clash.
It led to seven-time grand slam champion and former World No. 1 Mats Wilander to demand the Australian Open moves the prominent Melbourne sign on the baseline.
“Move the sign, seriously,” Wilander told Eurosport. “I mean, that Melbourne sign, it’s (painted like) a normal line on a tennis court, and they are slippery, which is why we always wipe the lines down if it rains.
“You’re sweating, and Djokovic clearly slips through that paint part, so move it. That painted Melbourne sign should not be that close to the baseline.”
But much of the rest of the world was quick to doubt Djokovic’s injury, with vision of warm up from John Cain Arena showing Djokovic moving freely and taking the court against Raonic.
Djokovic moved from an outside court to the arena to avoid TV cameras.
Even Fritz took a tongue-in-cheek shot at Djokovic when he said: “When I hit a winner, he’d kind of, like, pull at it. He looked fine in the fifth.”.
Former top British star Tim Henman also told Eurosport: “He was talking about it being an abdominal tear. Well, if it’s an abdominal tear it’s almost impossible to carry on.”
Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou told Tennis Majors he believes Djokovic is hurt but that is isn’t as serious as he is making out.
“Sometimes during the matches, Novak (Djokovic) plays a bit with the mind of the opponent when he’s in trouble,” he said. “He pretending he’s giving up that he’s not there. And then, boom, he plays again.
“He’s done that a lot of time in the past, OK, but he doesn’t fake an injury during a tournament.”
“Looking at his performance so far vs Raonic, it is difficult to believe that Novak has an abdominal muscle tear,” the super coach added on Twitter.
While Nick Kyrgios continued his war of words with Djokovic, his doubles partner Thanasi Kokkinakis had to explain a post saying: “Recover from a torn muscle in two days?! Teach me.”
“I have no idea what he’s feeling or what he’s going through. I just heard he thinks he has a torn muscle,” Kokkinakis said after his doubles loss with Kyrgios.
“I didn’t mean it in a bad way at all. I’m like, if he can recover from a torn muscle in two days, like hats off. Like teach me, yeah.
“I knew some Serbian fans would take that in like a negative way, and I copped abuse for it, but it wasn’t even taking a shot at him.
“If he actually has a torn muscle and can recover in two days, that’s impressive, because I haven’t been able to do that and it’s taken me months. But obviously he’s a hell of a player.”
There were plenty of fans speculating it may be mind games from the World No. 1.
But New York Times tennis correspondent Christopher Clarey hit back at those trying to find a deeper meaning behind Djokovic’s injury.
“Djokovic’s powers of recovery certainly look remarkable but the conspiracy theorists still haven’t answered the question of why he would have any incentive to feign an injury with a comfortable two-set lead against Taylor Fritz. No player wants to break his own momentum,” he tweeted.