Serbia's Novak Djokovic, right, plays a shot against Spain's Alejandro Davidovich Fokina during their third round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Friday, June 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
PARIS — Novak Djokovic makes no secret of the way he loves to feed off negativity during a tennis match. Doesn’t really matter whether he’s ahead or behind on the scoreboard. The guy simply finds motivation and inspiration from all manner of slights, real and perceived.
Maybe it’s how a chair umpire is officiating that particular day … or the way Djokovic’s entourage is sitting in place in the stands instead of rising to encourage him … or the criticism he receives for wading into a political issue — all of which already have happened during this French Open.
Or maybe it’s how he’s treated by the spectators who, as they did on Friday during Djokovic’s 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-2 victory over 29th-seeded Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in the third round at Roland Garros, get on his case and jeer him for seemingly no good reason at all.
Which is what happened at Court Philippe Chatrier during the longest three-set Grand Slam match of the 22-time major champion Djokovic’s long and distinguished career, clocking in at 3 hours, 36 minutes. He wasn’t thrilled at how difficult things had been in the match, didn’t love double-faulting three times in a single game, and really didn’t like the feedback coming from a portion of the fans.
“A majority of the people comes to enjoy tennis or support one or the other player. But they are individuals. There are people — there are groups or whatever — that love to boo every single thing you do. That’s something that I find disrespectful and I frankly don’t understand that,” Djokovic said later at his news conference. “But it’s their right. They paid the ticket. They can do whatever they want.”
After being two points from dropping the second set, trailing 5-4 in that tiebreaker, Djokovic grabbed control. He took the next three points, each of which ended with an error by Davidovich Fokina, then, the set his, Djokovic took a couple of steps toward the sideline, before reacting by punching the air, spinning around, throwing an uppercut, holding his right fist aloft and roaring.
That drew some unfriendly noise from some in the crowd. More displeasure with him was expressed a moment later, when the chair umpire announced that Djokovic was taking a medical timeout while a trainer massaged his upper left leg.
Sitting in his chair with his shirt off and a white towel around his shoulders, Djokovic heard the negativity and responded with gestures. He waved a hand, as if to say, “Give me more!” He gave a sarcastic thumbs-up and nodded. He applauded. He shook his head and chuckled.
“At times, you know, I will stay quiet. Not ‘at times’ — actually, 99% of the time, I will stay quiet,” said Djokovic, who won the French Open in 2016 and 2021 and, in addition to seeking a 23rd major championship to break his tie with Rafael Nadal, can become the first man with at least three trophies at each Slam site. “Sometimes I will oppose that, because I feel when somebody is disrespectful, he or she deserves to have an answer to that. That’s what it is all about.”
In addition to the No. 3 Djokovic, other seeded men advancing included No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz, No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas, the runner-up to Djokovic in Paris two years ago and at the Australian Open this year, No. 11 Karen Khachanov and No. 17 Lorenzo Musetti, who eliminated No. 14 Cam Norrie. Lorenzo Sonego defeated No. 7 Andrey Rublev, while Juan Pablo Varillas took out No. 13 Hubert Hurkacz 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-2 in Friday night’s last contest.
Alcaraz was a 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 winner over No. 26 Denis Shapovalov in the night session. After trailing 4-1 in the second set — “I was in trouble,” Alcaraz said — the reigning U.S. Open champion grabbed seven consecutive games to take control for good.
He’ll next play Musetti, who won their only previous matchup, while Djokovic meets Varillas, a 27-year-old from Peru who is ranked 94th and had never won a Grand Slam match until this week.
No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka and No. 9 Daria Kasatkina moved into the women’s fourth round, along with Sloane Stephens, Elina Svitolina and 2021 runner-up Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, but No. 3 Jessica Pegula was sent packing.
Pegula quickly gathered her belongings and marched out of the main stadium after a 6-1, 6-3 loss to Elise Mertens, a far earlier exit than the American has been used to at Grand Slam tournaments lately.
Pegula was a quarterfinalist at four of the five most recent majors, including a year ago at Roland Garros.
She’s never gone further than that stage at a Slam and never really got into this match against the 28th-seeded Mertens on a day with a breeze at about 10 mph (15 kph) and a chill in the low 60s Fahrenheit (low teens Celsius).
“I feel like I was still playing good points. Elise was just being really tough, not making a lot of errors and making me play every single ball,” said Pegula, whose parents own the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. “And with the windy conditions, I felt like it definitely played into her game.”
With Pegula joining No. 5 Caroline Garcia, No. 8 Maria Sakkari and No. 10 Petra Kvitova on the sideline, four of the top 10 women’s seeds already are gone. That’s part of a pattern this year at Roland Garros: Only 12 seeds made it through two rounds, the fewest in Paris since the field expanded to 32 seeds in 2002.
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