Novak Djokovic showed a chink of vulnerability but survived as the world number one battled past France’s Gilles Simon in a five-set thriller at the Australian Open.
Djokovic has now lost only once in his last 32 grand slam matches but he was given a scare on Rod Laver Arena, before winning 6-3 6-7 (1/7) 6-4 4-6 6-3.
The Serb was well below his brilliant best, hitting a mammoth 100 unforced errors, but he is safely through and will now meet Japan’s Kei Nishikori in the quarter-finals.
The last time Djokovic was taken to a fifth was at Wimbledon last year when he held off Kevin Anderson and he showed his resilience again here to make his 27th consecutive appearance in the last eight of a grand slam.
“Playing against a player like Gilles you can expect a lot of rallies,” Djokovic said.
“He is always making you play an extra shot. I made a lot of unforced errors today but he was fighting, he was playing well, physically it was very demanding and I’m just happy to get through this one.”
As he was finishing his on-court interview, a spectator shouted out “no more dropshots!” after the top seed had netted two drop-shots at crucial moments in the fourth set.
Djokovic halted his interview and asked the fan to repeat his advice before replying over the microphone: “I hate to say it, but you’re absolutely right.”
Two breaks were enough in the first set but the 10-time major champion was already showing signs of sluggishness as he struggled to penetrate with his serve and made 19 unforced errors from the baseline.
Simon, renowned for his speed and guile but not his attacking instincts, was wearing his opponent down and after Djokovic had spurned 11 break points, the Frenchman capitalised, storming into a 5-0 lead in the tie-break before clinching the set.
Djokovic tightened up in the third as he reduced his error count by inviting Simon to attack and the tactic worked as he broke twice to restore his advantage.
Back Simon came again, however, and as Djokovic served to stay in the fourth set at 5-4, the top seed wavered, dabbing two limp drop-shots into the net and then missing a backhand to send the contest to a decider.
So many times Djokovic has looked jaded only to raise his game at the decisive moment, and so it proved again as he raced into a 4-1 lead in the fifth after Simon had chucked away a service game in which he led 40-0.
A wayward forehand from the Frenchman gifted away the second break and a cushion, which Djokovic needed as he was instantly broken back for 5-2.
A tense game followed as Simon saved two match points to hold but Djokovic kept his nerve, serving out with ease to seal victory in four hours and 32 minutes.