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Djokovic digs in to deny Popyrin

  • Ravi Ubha

Novak Djokovic lost the last time he faced a Sydneysider, and the 24-time Grand Slam champion was given all he could handle by another one prior to reaching the third round at Australian Open 2024.

MORE: All the scores from Day 4 at AO 2024

Djokovic saving four set points in the third set proved pivotal on the way to his 6-3 4-6 7-6 (4) 6-2 victory over Alexei Popyrin on Wednesday night under the lights at Rod Laver Arena. 

Earlier this month, Alex de Minaur had gotten the better of Djokovic at the United Cup – but downing the 10-time winner at Melbourne Park is a far different proposition altogether.

MORE: AO 2024 men's singles draw

Popyrin, however, might have done the job had he won that third set with Djokovic creaking. 

It wasn't pretty at times for Djokovic, but the outcome was ideal

Down 0-40 serving at 5-6, an ace, backhand error down the line and volley winner brought Djokovic to deuce. A game point vanished, with Popyrin earning a fourth set chance.

He did little wrong, too.

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Popyrin authored a fine return off a deep second serve, and might still be wondering how Djokovic’s backhand stab later in the rally didn’t go awry.

Popyrin’s forehand duly sailed long – and Djokovic took the tiebreak to realistically end the world No.43’s challenge. 

“He had quite an easy forehand and he missed it. I didn’t do anything special," Djokovic said.

"I was lucky on that point and in that game to get away. He was the better player for a set and a half. Second set and third set, he was the better player.

"Things changed around, the momentum shifted in the tiebreak. I managed to put one ball more in the court than he did. I don’t think I played at the highest level. In some instances yes. But also credit to him for tactically serving at the right game plan and serving big. He deserves a big round of applause for the performance.”

The world No.1 saved four set points in a pulsating third set

Popyrin said ahead of the encounter that there would be no point stepping on court if he didn’t believe he could win and become the first player since Hyeon Chung in 2018 to beat Djokovic in Melbourne.

His belief must have been at an all-time high given his stellar 2023 campaign that included a second career title and Masters 1000 quarterfinal.

And if he wanted the recipe to beat Djokovic, he needed only to ask his coach Xavier Malisse.

An under-the-weather Djokovic toiled for four hours in the first round before finally overcoming 18-year-old qualifier Dino Prizmic – like Popyrin a French Open junior champ.

But he came out sharp against Popyrin, barely dropping a point on serve in the first and constantly pressuring his foe, the outstanding returner that he is.

The breakthrough finally came for 5-3.

But just like the fickle Melbourne weather that can change in a flash, so did the match

Djokovic’s first-serve percentage dropped, Popyrin’s rose, and it was the latter suddenly on the front foot.

Unable to serve out the set – he might have flashed back to Roland Garros when he held set points on Rafael Nadal in 2021 – an undaunted Popyrin broke in the next game.

A net-cord winner with Popyrin stranded at 15-all preceded Popyrin’s backhand slice on set point that barely crept over the net. Djokovic raced up there but was lobbed to officially level the contest. 

Popyrin gave Djokovic all he could handle for the second and third sets

It marked the first time in his lengthy Australian Open career that Djokovic conceded sets in his first two rounds.

But he did not surrender the match.

The trainer visited the court – not for Djokovic’s wrist that has given him problems but for Popyrin’s left calf. Popyrin appeared unbothered, though, setting the stage for the dramatic third-set conclusion.

With the damage done in the third, Djokovic grabbed hold of the fourth to add to the Big Three’s impressive record against Australians at Melbourne Park. It is now 19-2, the lone two victories coming courtesy of Lleyton Hewitt, who got the better of Nadal in both 2004 and 2005. 

Djokovic stretched his hand and legs towards the latter stages of the three-hour, 11 minute affair.

“I haven’t been playing my best, but I’m still trying to find the form. Particularly in the early rounds, you play players that have nothing to lose really," he said.

"They come out on the centre court trying to play their best tennis and I think both my first and second-round opponents were really great quality tennis players. I managed to find a way to win in four. Hopefully I’ll be able to build this as the tournament progresses.”

Next up for the Serb is a player who idolised him, Tomas Martin Etcheverry, who will have faced a 36, 37 and 36-year-old in his first three matches after beating Andy Murray and Gael Monfils.