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Djokovic Fights off Popyrin and Heckler in AO Triumph

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – JANUARY 17: Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates match point in their round two singles match against Alexei Popyrin of Australia during the 2024 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 17, 2024 in Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

Novak Djokovic has delivered dominance down under.

Tonight, 10-time champion Djokovic showed strong survival skills to sustain his title defense.

The top seed saved four set points in the third set, subduing Aussie Alexei Popyrin 6-3, 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-3 to battle into the Australian Open third round for the 16th time.

“He had quite an easy forehand [on the fourth set point] and he missed it,” Djokovic told Hall of Famer Jim Courier in his on-court interview afterward. “I didn’t do anything special. I was lucky in that point and that game to get away. He was a better player for a set and a half.

“Things changed around. Momentum shifted in the tiebreak. I managed to put one more ball in the court than he did so that’s all. I don’t think I played at the highest level, at some instances, yes, but also credit to him for tactically coming out with the right game plan and serving big. He deserves a big round of applause for his performance tonight.”

Still, Djokovic, who was pushed to the longest Grand Slam first-round match of his career with a four-hour victory over Croatian qualifier Dino Prizmic, has shown signs of vulnerability through two rounds.

Sometime sniffling between points, Djokovic shook out his cranky right wrist prior to tonight’s third-set tiebreaker—and injury that hampered him in his United Cup loss to Aussie Alex de Minaur—at times pulled a tissue out of his pocket as he combated an apparent cold and very well could have been two sets to one tonight against an opponent who knocked Taylor Fritz out of Melbourne last year.

Ultimately, an apparent heckling fan sitting behind the baseline fired up the fuse of intensity in Djokovic. He plowed through the fourth set winning 20 of 24 serve points and committing just five errors to close in three hours, 11 minutes.

The owner of 98 career titles will face another potentially tricky test in round three against Tomas Martin Etcheverry.

Earlier, the 30th-seeded Etcheverry defeated Gael Monfils 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 backing up his opening-round straight-sets sweep of five-time finalist Andy Murray with confidence and clean ball striking. Etcheverry has dropped serve only twice in two rounds.

“[Etcheverry’s] results are really impressive. He’s obviously playing maybe tennis of his life on the hard court,” Djokovic said. “Tomas is a great guy. I get along very well with him and his team. Obviously on the court we’re going to be opponents. We both want to win.

“I’m going to try to, yeah, learn from the previous matches we had. But I think his level of tennis on the hard court particularly has improved a lot. Results are a testament to that. I have to be very, very prepared and ready for that.”

Tested by his own health issues and two talented opponents, Djokovic knows he must take his take his game to a higher gear in his quest to capture a record 25th Grand Slam championship.

“I sincerely hope [I can improve], so that’s what it’s going to take for me to go deep in the tournament,” Djokovic said. “I haven’t been playing my best, still trying to find my form. Particularly in early rounds you have players who have nothing to lose really.

“I think both my first and second round opponents were really really great quality tennis players. I managed to find a way to win in four. That’s what counts at the end. Hopefully I’ll be able to build this as the tournament progresses.”

In the early stages of the fourth set, Djokovic had a run-in with one boisterous fan walking over to the back black wall, looking at the fan and telling him “come say it to my face.”

Asked afterward what the fan was yelling at him, Djokovic replied “you don’t want to know” before sharing what happened when he reached his boiling point.

“I was tolerating it for most of the match. At one point I had enough, and I asked him whether he wants to come down and tell it to my face,” Djokovic said. “When you confront somebody, unfortunately for him, he didn’t have the courage to come down.

“That’s what I was asking him. If you have courage, if you’re such a tough man, tough guy, come down and tell it to my face, and let’s have a discussion about it. He was apologizing from far away. That’s all it is.”

That exchange fired up Djokovic and fueled the key break as he jumped out to a triple break point lead in the sixth game.

Persistently pounding Popyrin’s backhand, Djokovic drew the error rattling out a love break for a 4-2 fourth-set lead.

It wasn’t a vintage Djokovic performance, but the champion showed toughness and resilience and reinforced a tennis truth: If you’re an opponent or a fan and you make him mad, the Grand Slam king will come roaring back and deliver the last word.