'Machine' Djokovic sparks injury debate after Melbourne masterclass

Tennis star required medical treatment during matches, wore heavy strapping and said that he was not able to practise

Serbias Novak Djokovic celebrates after victory against Australias Alex De Minaur during their mens singles match on day 8 of Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 23, 2023. — AFP
Serbia's Novak Djokovic celebrates after victory against Australia's Alex De Minaur during their men's singles match on day 8 of Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 23, 2023. — AFP

MELBOURNE: Novak Djokovic's seemingly remarkable recovery at the Australian Open prompted debate on Tuesday and raised the question: when is an injury not an injury?

The 35-year-old Serb was battling a left hamstring problem before the Grand Slam began last week as he chases a record-equalling 22nd major crown.

The red-hot favourite has required medical treatment during matches, worn heavy strapping and said a few days ago that he was not able to practice.

It appeared the injury could even torpedo his tournament altogether.

And yet there he was on Monday, the strapping still there but the former world number one moving freely to sweep past home hope Alex de Minaur 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 and into the last eight.

It was an ominous warning of intent from Djokovic and he said afterwards that the hamstring was so improved that "I didn't feel any pain".

He thanked his medical team and said he had been popping anti-inflammatories, something he does not like to do.

"It's been honestly exhausting to be involved in a lot of different treatments and machines and stuff that we do," he said.

At his post-match press conference, De Minaur — who noted how well Djokovic was able to move around the court — was asked about his opponent's hamstring and all the fuss around it.

"It's the only thing everyone's been talking about," said the 23-year-old.

"Today I was out there on the court against him. Either I'm not a good enough tennis player to expose that or... it looked good to me."

The Australian subsequently took to Twitter on Tuesday to hit out at headlines which took his comments as casting doubt on how injured Djokovic really was.

Speaking to Serbian media at Melbourne Park, Djokovic said suggestions that he had overblown or even faked the injury only motivated him more.

Banged up

Djokovic's left leg stirred wider discussion about how common it is for tennis players to compete with an injury and why a player would want to exaggerate or even fake being hurt.

Aside from Djokovic, injuries have hampered a number of players in Melbourne, including on Tuesday Sebastian Korda, who retired hurt from his quarter-final against Karen Khachanov.

World number nine Taylor Fritz tweeted that 80 per cent of players "are always dealing w something (severity levels differ) but everyone is honestly always a little banged-up".

"The media is only ever focusing on the top guys so their issues get more attention," the American said.

"Also some players are more vocal talking about injuries than others.

"I don't think people fake injuries, I do think sometimes players stretch the severity of the injury because it depressurises them and helps them play better."

Daria Saville, who was born in Moscow but now represents Australia, highlighted just how common it is for players to compete with aches and pains.

"Playing with a niggle, playing sore, even playing with chronic pain is not an injury," she tweeted.

"An injury, that's something that's causing you enough pain to stop you from competing. Trust me, I freaking know."

The world number 56 missed most of 2020 and 2021 with injury, but said that she had "played for 6 years with chronic pain in my Achilles".

As for Djokovic, he is "a machine and he can probably tolerate more pain than others", said Saville.