Twice champion Novak Djokovic huffed and puffed his way into the French Open fourth round with a 7-6(4) 7-6(5) 6-2 win over Spanish 29th seed Alejandro Davidovich Fokina on Friday.
Djokovic, who is aiming to leapfrog injured champion Rafa Nadal and win a record 23rd Grand Slam title, came into the match on Court Philippe Chatrier having lost to Davidovich Fokina the last time they met in Monte Carlo.
“I knew it was going to be a very difficult match, a very physical match,” Djokovic said. “We played three hours for only two sets. He contested very well.
“He is an amazing fighter and an amazing player. He has very few weaknesses in his game. Congratulations to him for fighting. Bad luck, but he played a great match.”
The 36-year-old Serbian was given an early reminder of his struggles in that 2022 match by the man-bun sporting Davidovich Fokina, who had the world number three tied up in knots with some heavy hitting and breathtaking drop shots.
Djokovic creaked on serve but hit back when it mattered to level at 3-3 and edged the 83-minute first set with a blistering crosscourt winner that drew huge roars.
A charged-up Djokovic responded to an early break with two of his own but dropped serve again in the wildly swinging second set, before shrugging off three double faults at 5-5 and a time violation to double his advantage in another tiebreak.
He called the trainer onto court for an apparent left leg issue, sparking fears the injury that accompanied his run to the Australian Open title in January had returned, but pulled away in the third set and crossed the finish line in style.
“A win is a win. The first two sets, three hours, I thought if I lose the second set, I will probably be playing five hours today,” said Djokovic, who will play 13th seed Hubert Hurkacz or Juan Pablo Varillas in the next round.
“You have to be ready. That is what Grand Slams are all about, playing best of five. You have to believe in yourself and make the most out of it. I am proud of the performance today.”
Meanwhile, world number three Jessica Pegula’s hopes of hoisting her maiden Grand Slam trophy ended in despair on Friday after a 6-1 6-3 defeat by Belgian Elise Mertens in the third round.
The 29-year-old Pegula had no answer to Mertens’ versatile game. Former doubles world number one Mertens used her complete arsenal of shots, including sliced forehands, drop shots, lobs and deep groundstrokes to move her opponent around and pin her back.
Mertens, ranked 28th, was near flawless at the start, breaking the American twice in a row to race to a 5-0 lead and bag the first set in just 26 minutes.
Pegula, who had advanced into the third round after her ailing Italian opponent Camila Giorgi retired after the first set, broke Mertens early in the second but the Belgian responded in the next game.
Pegula earned another rare break point at 3-2 but sunk a three consecutive backhands into the net.
The 27-year-old Belgian took advantage of Pegula’s low first serve percentage to break her again and move 5-3 clear, leaving the frustrated American to shake her head and look at her coaching box for any help.
Her ordeal was over after 82 minutes with her 28th unforced error.
“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. And with the windy conditions, I felt like it definitely played into her game,” said Pegula, whose parents own the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.
“She returned well and I thought that she used the wind on both sides to her advantage. She was playing aggressive on the side with the wind and then, against the wind, I think she was playing some really good defense.”
Mertens is a 27-year-old Belgian who was a semifinalist at the 2018 Australian Open and twice has reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals.
But she still has not made it beyond the fourth round on the red clay in Paris. She will attempt to do that when she plays against No. 24 Anastasia Potapova or 2021 French Open runner-up Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on Sunday.
Now Pegula will attempt to chase a title in doubles alongside 19-year-old Coco Gauff, whose third-round match in singles comes Saturday against 16-year-old Mirra Andreeva. A year ago, Gauff was the runner-up in singles at the French Open — and she also made it to the final in doubles with Pegula.
“Obviously still a good chance to hopefully kind of go farther than we did last year,” Pegula said about doubles, “so definitely I’m going to be focusing on that now.”
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 have already 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.
Another woman from the United States joined Pegula on the way out early Friday: Peyton Stearns, the 2022 NCAA champion for the University of Texas, was eliminated by No. 9 Daria Kasatkina 6-0, 6-1 in 55 minutes.
Stearns, a big hitter who defeated 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in the second round, simply could not find her targets. More than half of Kasatkina’s 59 points came via the 30 unforced errors by Stearns.