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Novak Djokovic powers into French Open last 16

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Paris – Novak Djokovic battled into the French Open fourth round for a 14th consecutive year on Friday, after women’s third seed Jessica Pegula and seventh-ranked Andrey Rublev were dumped out of the tournament.

Djokovic has made headlines for his comments about Kosovo this week but his on-court progress has been relatively serene, reaching the second week without dropping a set.

The Serb star was made to work hard by Spanish 29th seed Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, who served for the first set and missed a set point in the second, but won 7-6 (7/4), 7-6 (7/5), 6-2 on Court Philippe Chatrier.

“A win is a win, maybe a bit too much — the first two sets,” said Djokovic. “I thought if I lost the second set we would play five hours today, but I’m proud of the performance.”

Two-time champion Djokovic, who has also made the French Open quarter-finals in each of the past 13 years, will take on either Polish 13th seed Hubert Hurkacz or Peru’s Juan Pablo Varillas in the last 16.

The 36-year-old is hoping to break out of his tie with injured rival Rafael Nadal at the top of the men’s all-time list of major winners at Roland Garros.

He is just one title behind Serena Williams’ mark of 23 Slams and two adrift of Margaret Court’s overall record.

Djokovic has now won three of his four matches with Davidovich Fokina.

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The first two sets lasted two hours and 47 minutes, as Davidovich Fokina provided a stern test of Djokovic’s form.

But the world number three broke when he trailed 6-5 in the opening set before overturning a 3-1 deficit to win a tie-break.

Davidovich Fokina missed one set point to level the match before Djokovic won another breaker.

Djokovic then made short work of the third set.

World number one Carlos Alcaraz, considered the favourite and slated to meet Djokovic in the semi-finals, features in the night-session match against talented Canadian Denis Shapovalov.

The 20-year-old Spaniard has defeated players ranked outside the top 100 in his first two matches.

Shapovalov is of a far higher calibre, though, despite struggling for form in recent months.

The Canadian was ranked in the top 10 less than two years ago and was a Wimbledon semi-finalist in 2021.

Sonego stunner

Italian Lorenzo Sonego battled back from two sets down to knock out Rublev and reach the last 16 for the second time.

The world number 48 was two points from defeat during a fourth-set tie-break but prevailed 5-7, 0-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7/5), 6-3 after three hours and 42 minutes on Court Suzanne Lenglen.

Sonego will face Russian 11th seed Karen Khachanov for a possible quarter-final meeting with Djokovic.

“Incredible comeback today,” he said. “I played more aggressive than in the first and second sets because when he’s aggressive it’s tough to compete against him.”

Eleventh seed Khachanov ended Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis’ run with an entertaining 6-4, 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (7/5) win.

American Pegula’s hopes of a deep run in Paris were ended in comprehensive fashion by Belgian Elise Mertens.

The 28th seed cruised to a 6-1, 6-3 victory to reach the fourth round for the third time.

World number three Pegula, who only has two WTA Tour titles to her name, has still never passed the quarter-final stage of a Grand Slam tournament.

“I’m very happy to win in two sets. She’s a very good player,” said Mertens.

The former Australian Open semi-finalist will next face 2021 runner-up Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

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Sabalenka ‘not safe’

Aryna Sabalenka refused to do an official post-match press conference after powering into the last 16 for the first time with a straight-sets win over Kamilla Rakhimova.

The Belarusian claimed she “did not feel safe” when asked to condemn her country’s support of Russia’s war in Ukraine during a press conference earlier this week.

The second seed is yet to drop a set in the tournament after a comfortable 6-2, 6-2 win against world number 82 Rakhimova.

Sabalenka is one of the favourites for the championship after a fine start to the year and will usurp Iga Swiatek as world number one if she lifts the title.

“I should be able to feel safe when I do interviews with the journalists after my matches,” she told selected media.

Sabalenka will face either former US Open champion Sloane Stephens or Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva in the fourth round.

Russian Daria Kasatkina, a semi-finalist last year, raced into the second week by thrashing American Peyton Stearns 6-0, 6-1 in under an hour.

The ninth seed will next face Elina Svitolina on Sunday for a place in the quarter-finals.

Ukrainian Svitolina reached the fourth round on her first Grand Slam appearance since the 2022 Australian Open with a 2-6, 6-2, 7-5 win over Anna Blinkova.

She is now on an eight-match winning run after also clinching the title in Strasbourg last week, beating Russian Blinkova in the final.

AFP

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