Melbourne: World number one Novak Djokovic said he could feel the tension before overcoming his great rival Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 at the Australian Open on Thursday in a repeat of their 2008 Melbourne final.
The top seed vanquished the Frenchman, who he described as “one of my greatest rivals”, for the 17th time in 23 tour meetings stretching back 11 years and advances to face Canada’s 25th seed Denis Shapovalov in the third round.
Djokovic, 31, won the first of his 14 Grand Slams in that final against Tsonga over a decade ago and he said the memories came flooding back as the pair walked back out on Rod Laver Arena.
“You could feel the tension on court at the beginning. We felt a lot of emotion,” said Djokovic as both players took a trip down memory lane.
He said the tension was because he was “playing on the centre stage against Jo, who I consider one of the greatest rivals that I had throughout my life, my career.
“In the first Grand Slam final I had, I played against him.
“We played many thrilling matches, Olympic Games, all over the world, every possible surface.”
That 2008 Australian Open final remains world number 177 Tsonga’s sole Grand Slam final.
The 33-year-old is on the comeback trail after missing seven months of the 2018 season following left knee surgery that saw his ranking plummet outside the top 200.
Back in 2008 Djokovic had won in four sets and despite the easier-looking scoreline the Serb said Tsonga remained a hard opponent.
“It’s always tough to play Jo. Because of his injuries, he dropped his ranking, but the ranking is definitely not showing the right picture of his quality,” said Djokovic.
“I’m glad to see him playing. I hope that he can get back where he deserves: at the top of the tennis game.
“Yeah, I mean, knowing the history of what I had with him, I guess that’s what brought even more I guess weight on this encounter tonight.
“I did feel a bit more nervy than I usually do. But that made me focus even more, I guess.”
Rain delays earlier in the day meant that the second-round showdown began at 10.37 pm on Thursday and finished at 12:41am local time Friday after 2hr 4mins of play.
“It is what it is. It happened many times in the men’s sport, women’s as well, that you go after midnight,” said the Serb, who remained on course for a record seventh Australian Open crown.
Djokovic on court had thanked the fans for staying for the match. “It’s almost 1:00 am,” he said. “But I don’t feel like sleeping.”