If anyone was harbouring any thoughts that Novak Djokovic might be vulnerable at this year’s Australian Open, they can surely think again.
Djokovic cruises into top form in Melbourne
Ominous sign for rivals as seven-time champion crushes Diego Schwartzman to reach quarters
The seven-time champion - and the winner here last year - dropped a set in his opening-round win over Jan-Lennard Struff but on Australia Day, the man who won the first of his 16 Grand Slam titles to date in Melbourne in 2008, hit top form.
Djokovic’s 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 win over Diego Schwartzman of Argentina was every bit as simple as the scoreline sounds and if anything, it could have been even more emphatic, had Schwartzman not battled hard in the third.
Everything worked well, from his second serve, which he won 68 percent of serves with, to his record of returning 74 percent of the Schwartzman serves into court and his 38 winners, including eight aces.
Schwartzman is as good a competitor as any, and in his two most recent meetings with Djokovic had pushed him to a deciding set but he had no chance as he was pulled all over the court by the power and precision of the Serb’s groundstrokes.
Djokovic’s win means he is into the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam for the 46th time, a record second only to Roger Federer, who had 56 going into his fourth-round clash with Marton Fucsovics of Hungary.
“It feels great,” Djokovic said. “I had a fantastic couple of matches in a row, centre court, last two rounds. I felt more confident going through the ball, hitting serves really well."
“Today was a good test because Diego was in form, he hasn't dropped a set in three rounds. Obviously, he can be a very dangerous opponent from the baseline if you give him time. I knew that. I stepped out on the court with a clear game plan what I need to do. I think I kept things pretty much in control in all three sets. Maybe could have finished the match a bit earlier. But all in all, it was a very solid performance.”
Djokovic’s return skills were sharp against Schwartzman, but that was perhaps to be expected, the Argentine not one of the bigger servers on the Tour thanks to his 5ft 7in (1.7m) frame.
He will have to be more alert in his quarter-final though when he plays Milos Raonic, the Canadian who is into the last eight for the fifth time in six years.
At 6ft 5in, (1.96m), Raonic has the height to find the angles and his power can be a threat for anyone. But it is his serve that is his biggest weapon and Djokovic knows he will face a very different challenge.
Along with John Isner and Ivo Karlovic, who are five inches taller than Raonic, the Canadian has one of the best serves in the game. But Djokovic said that of the three men, he preferred to try to return the Raonic serve.
“Obviously it's a huge advantage when you hit serves from that height,” he said. “You can hit any angle, anything you really want. That puts a lot of pressure on your opponent."
“But, of course, that also has some disadvantages in terms of movement. If the returner gets the ball back in play, then I think Raonic is better than these two guys."
“But I feel like maybe you could read his serve better than Isner and Karlovic. I don't want to say it's slightly slower, but just a little bit of a different toss, different technique. You can probably get some looks at second serves or breakpoints and stuff like this maybe a bit more than the other two guys."
“It's such a minor difference that you don't really notice it so much. But on the court it makes a big difference.”
It is 12 years since Djokovic beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to win the Australian Open for his first Grand Slam title.
This has been his most successful Grand Slam event and he will be especially confident against Raonic, because he has won all nine of their previous meetings, including their quarter-final in Melbourne in 2015.
But Raonic said he, too, will take confidence from their most recent clash, in Cincinnati in 2018, when he pushed Djokovic to a deciding set.
"In Cincinnati, I had more of my opportunities than most times,” he said. “I think I was up a break in each set. So I have got to be sharp in those moments if I can create them and if they arise.”
On the evidence of their head to head record and more importantly, Djokovic’s form, that might be a big if.