Survive and advance.
That’s what world No. 1 Novak Djokovic did in his first-round match as he began his quest for an 11th Australian Open title, a record 15th hardcourt major and a record 25th Grand Slam crown.
The 36-year-old Serb survived a tougher than expected challenge from 18-year-0ld Croatian qualifier Dino Prižmić, 6-2, 6-7(5), 6-3, 6-4, in an even 4 hours. Prižmić, the 2023 French Open junior champion, is ranked 178th in the world.
It was the 90th win in Melbourne for Djokovic, second only to Roger Federer’s 102, and it came in front of former world No. 1 and four-time Australian Open champion Andre Agassi.
“[Prižmić] deserved every applause, every credit that he got tonight,” a somewhat stunned looking Djokovic told Jim Courier on court. “He’s amazing player, I must say, so mature for his age. He handled himself on the court incredibly well.
“This is his moment, honestly. It could have easily been his match as well. He was a break up in the third. He fought even though even though he was 4-0 and a break point for 5-0 love down. He fought and he showed great mentality, resilience. He made me really run for my money for sure tonight. That’s for sure.”
Djokovic, who has battled a right wrist issue entering the tournament, will face either Alexei Popyrin of Australia or Marc Polmans of South Africa in the second round, and could potentially meet former world No. 1 Andy Murray in the third.
After a routine first set, Djokovic was challenged mightily by Prižmić, who showed no fear while slugging it out with Djokovic from the baseline and also displayed tremendous speed around the court, which may have discouraged Djokovic from employing his famous drop shot.
Prižmić seized a 6-2 lead in the tiebreak. After Djokovic saved three set points, he hit a forehand wide on the fourth on the Croatian’s serve, leveling the match at one set apiece.
It was the first tiebreak Prižmić had ever won on the ATP Tour.
“Jeez, when you think about it, I am double his age,” Djokovic said with a smile. “Reality hits hard tonight.
“I’m really trying to enjoy every moment on the court. Obviously, I struggled in many different moments to him, but it was credit to him, due to his incredible game plan. He just had an answer for everything. He was very physical.”
In the third set, Prižmić broke for a 3-2 lead when Djokovic ended an epic game by hitting a forehand into the net. Still, Djokovic regrouped to win the next four games in a row, pumping his first and shouting to the crowd after hitting a forehand winner on set point.
In the fourth set, Djokovic raced out to a 4-0 lead but Prižmić showed some grit by breaking the Serb in the sixth game before holding to make it 4-3.
With Prižmić serving at 3-5, he fell behind 0-40 when Djokovic raced forward and hit a shot angled crosscourt shot that the Croatian could not retrieve.
Prižmić saved four match points in the game and closed to within 4-5 when Djokovic hit a two-handed service return into the net.
“Honestly, I have many, many praises for him, many compliments,” Djokovic said. “I love the way he’s using every inch of the court. He’s comfortable to come in, he’s defending incredibly well. Just amazing performance for someone that is 18 years old that never had the experience of playing on a big stage. Big kudos to him, his team, to his family and I certainly want to be in his corner….because he’s going to make some big things in his career, that’s for sure.
“We’re going to see a lot of him, a lot of him, in the future.”
Djokovic finally served it out on his sixth match point with a crosscourt backhand winner. The two met at the net and Djokovic gave his opponent some nice words for his strong effort. Djokovic then pointed to Prižmić as the crowd gave both players a standing ovation.
“Any player is here with the intention to achieve the dream of winning a Grand Slam,” Djokovic, who won three of the four major titles in 2023, said ahead of the tournament. “Some players are obviously more expected to go further than some others. It’s a 128-player draw… We know what Grand Slams represent for our sport. It’s where every player wants to play their best tennis.”
Djokovic’s 24 Grand Slam titles are 13 more than the other 127 players in the men’s draw combined.
“Physically, I’m still finding myself out there on the court,’ he said, “but now I have a couple of days until my next match so hopefully I’ll be able to be at my best for next time.”