MELBOURNE, Australia -- A Swiss and a Serb played a tense, thrilling match in a Grand Slam event Sunday night.
That was a familiar scenario. Nothing else about the punishing five hours three-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic spent fending off a coup d'etat attempt by Stanislas Wawrinka in the round of 16 followed any predictable script.
Djokovic's skilled 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 12-10 escape will be remembered as just one brilliant performance among many for him. But it was the match of Wawrinka's life, and anyone who knows anything about athletes at this level knows it's hard to draw consolation from a breakthrough loss.
After Djokovic landed a sharply angled backhand winner on the third match point, Wawrinka staggered a few steps to the net, clutched the tape with both hands and bowed his head. When he tilted his face back upward, his eyes were filled with the anguish of unseized opportunity.
His face reddened and voice scratchy with emotion less than an hour later, Wawrinka said he took genuine pleasure in his best effort on a tennis court and doesn't intend to let it go to waste. He was as proud of his mental stamina as his physical staying power in shot-making that remained high quality through the final exceptional rally.
"I was playing some great tennis against the [world] No. 1 in front of a full house,'' Wawrinka said, smiling gamely. "I don't know why I would be negative.
"I know how it is in five sets. You have more than one life. Sometimes you feel completely dead after one set and you know you can come back. You need to relax a little bit and try to push yourself to be there.''
Djokovic said he found it difficult to adjust initially as Wawrinka bossed him around for the first hour and a half of the match, but tapped the energy in his natural ability to defend and built on that.
"These are the matches that you live for, you practice for,'' Djokovic said.
"Credit to him: He made me run all over the court. He never gave me the same ball. He was aggressive from both sides. I didn't know what's coming up next. So I'm just really full of joy after this match.''
It's not as if fellow Swiss passport-holder Roger Federer alone has kept Wawrinka from his moment in the sun, although Wawrinka is in good company standing in the shade of the man who over the long haul has eclipsed everyone in the game. But Wawrinka is a sort of vice-presidential figure who has spent his entire career trying to prove he's worthy of something more than ribbon-cuttings.
The sturdy 15th seed has been more of a stalwart player than a sensational one. He has consistently stuck around in tournaments long enough to stay in or near the top 20 in recent years, yet owns just three singles titles. His slashing one-handed backhand is a respected weapon on the men's tour and he serves well, but his game has never been quite complete enough to crack the spines of the world's best on the biggest stages.
All the numbers were stacked absurdly high in Djokovic's favor as the two men walked into Rod Laver Arena. Djokovic, the two-time defending champion with three Australian titles overall, hadn't lost to Wawrinka since 2006 in Vienna, when the Serb was a raw 19-year-old.
He'd won 10 straight against Wawrinka since then and had reached 14 straight quarterfinals in majors. Wawrinka, 27, had never motored past that stage of a Grand Slam, and he'd never beaten a No. 1 on any court in 11 previous tries.
But Wawrinka began this match at a sprint rather than a journeyman's jog, and Djokovic was caught off guard by his aggression. He literally lost his footing several times in a stunningly lopsided first set (a change of sneakers fixed part of the problem) and carried the hangover into the second, dropping a total of five service games in a row as Wawrinka kept the backhands coming and uncorked a passel of surprisingly fearsome forehands as well.
It was an unknown zone for Wawrinka, and that quality probably wouldn't have been sustainable no matter who was across the net, let alone a champion who has scrambled out of more than a few sand bunkers. With the second set on his racket at 5-3, Wawrinka's first serve suddenly deserted him, and Djokovic went on a tear of six straight games himself.
Wawrinka hitched up his baggy white shorts and never folded. He led wire to wire in the fourth-set tiebreaker, and the forehand he cranked to seal it was as electric a shot as there was in the match. The two men settled into a long string of service holds in the extended fifth set, which will go into the books as the longest for Djokovic in terms of total games (64).
It was a test of the world No. 1 worthy of a remarkable period in men's tennis, and one Djokovic said he appreciated even though he came close to being on the wrong side of it. "I'm just pleased to be part of that era, just pleased to be part of those matches where you push yourself up to the last drop of your energy,'' he said. "I'm very glad to be a winner of another marathon.''