By HOWARD FENDRICH AP Tennis Writer
PARIS — Novak Djokovic makes no secret of the way he loves to feed off negativity during a tennis match. It 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 third-seeded Djokovic, other seeded men advancing included top seed 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.
Second-seeded 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 third-seeded 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 and a chill in the low 60s.
“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 the 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.
BELARUS’ SABALENKA ALLOWED TO SKIP PRESS CONFERENCE
Two years after Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open when she was fined, then threatened with disqualification, for skipping news conferences, another top tennis player – No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka, the Australian Open champion – was allowed to avoid the traditional postmatch session open to all accredited journalists and instead speak Friday with what was described as a “pool” of selected questioners.
Sabalenka, who is from Belarus, didn’t appear at a news conference Friday after reaching the fourth round at Roland Garros for the first time with a 6-2, 6-2 victory over Kamilla Rakhimova. After each of her previous two wins this week, Sabalenka was asked about her stance on the war in Ukraine, which began in February 2022, when Russia invaded that country with help from Belarus.
Sabalenka said she “did not feel safe” at her news conference Wednesday and wanted to protect her “mental health and well-being.” Sabalenka’s desire to bypass the standard Q-and-A was supported by the tournament and the WTA. She will not be fined.
The topic of the war was raised at both earlier news conferences by Daria Meshcheriakova, a part-time journalist from the Ukraine for a sports outlet she said gets 7 million views per month. Meshcheriakova, who said she used to be an employee of the German embassy in Kyiv, left Ukraine 10 days after the war began and moved to the Netherlands.
Sabalenka’s first match at this French Open was against a player from Ukraine, Marta Kostyuk, who refused to shake hands at the net afterward – as she’s done against all opponents from Russia or Belarus since the attacks began. Kostyuk was booed by fans apparently unaware of why she declined the usual gesture.
Two spokespeople for the French Tennis Federation wouldn’t say who was allowed to talk with Sabalenka on Friday, but a transcript was distributed to the media. The first “question” was: “Before we start, I know there was a tense situation in your second-round press conference, and if you wanted to address it at all.”
The response, according to the transcript: “After my match, I spoke with the media like I normally do. I know they still expect some questions that are more about the politics and not so much about my tennis. For many months now I have answered these questions at tournaments and been very clear in my feelings and my thoughts. These questions do not bother me after my matches. I know that I have to provide answers to the media on things not related to my tennis or my matches, but on Wednesday I did not feel safe in (the) press conference. I should be able to feel safe when I do interviews with the journalists after my matches. For my own mental health and well-being, I have decided to take myself out of this situation today, and the tournament has supported me in this decision. It hasn’t been an easy few days, and now my focus is (to) continue to play well here in Paris.”
What followed were topics such as how Sabalenka played Friday, her previous track record at Roland Garros, her fitness training and what types of movies she has been watching.
At the 2021 French Open, Osaka – a four-time major champion and former No. 1 – shined a light on the issue of athletes’ mental health by saying she did not want to speak to the media during the tournament. She was docked $15,000 for skipping the news conference after her first-round victory in Paris, then was threatened by all four Grand Slam tournaments with possible additional punishment, including disqualification or suspension, if she continued to sit out those availabilities.
Osaka then pulled out of the competition, saying she experiences “huge waves of anxiety” before speaking to the media and revealed she has “suffered long bouts of depression.”
NADAL HAS HIP SURGERY
Rafael Nadal had arthroscopic surgery on Friday night for the injured left hip flexor that forced him to sit out the French Open for the first time since he won the first of his record 14 titles there in his 2005 tournament debut.
Nadal’s spokesman, Benito Perez-Barbadillo, said three doctors were involved in the procedure, which was taking place in Barcelona.
Perez-Barbadillo said he expected to be able to pass along information about the operation on Saturday, which is Nadal’s 37th birthday.
The Spaniard hasn’t competed anywhere since he lost to Mackenzie McDonald in the second round of the Australian Open on Jan. 18. Nadal’s movement clearly was restricted for much of that match and he ended up with his earliest exit at any Grand Slam tournament since 2016.
An MRI exam the next day revealed the extent of the injury, and Perez-Barbadillo said at the time that Nadal was expected to need up to two months to fully recover. He initially aimed to enter the Monte Carlo Masters in March on his beloved red clay, but he wasn’t able to play there, then subsequently sat out tournament after tournament, decreasing the likelihood that he would be ready for the French Open.
Nadal announced during a news conference at his tennis academy in Manacor, Spain, on May 18 that he would need to miss this year’s trip to compete in Paris. He said he would need to take an indefinite break from tennis – no matches and not even any practices.
And he added that he was not sure when – or, truly, if – he’ll be able to return to the tour, but figures that next season will be his last before retirement.
Nadal is just 1-3 this season and has dropped seven of his past nine matches overall, dating to a fourth-round loss to Frances Tiafoe in the fourth round of the U.S. Open last September.
Nadal is tied with Djokovic for the men’s record of 22 major championships. Djokovic is four match wins away from pulling ahead of Nadal for the first time.