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Djokovic tops Etcheverry in his 100th Australian Open match

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic - The Canadian Press

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — With 100 matches at the Australian Open and a record 24 titles across the four majors, Novak Djokovic is well placed to judge how he's progressing at a Grand Slam.

And he's starting to feel better about his health and his game after winning in straight sets Friday for the first time this tournament with a 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (2) victory over Tomas Martin Etcheverry.

With it, he improved to 92-8 at Melbourne Park, where he’s won the title 10 times and extended his winning streak to 31 matches.

“I played better than I did in the first two rounds, so that’s a positive change, I guess,” he said. “Starting to feel better game-wise and physically, as well. It’s positive signs.”

Only Roger Federer (117 matches and 102 wins) and Serena Williams (105 matches and 92 wins) have played more matches at the season's first major.

Djokovic has had a virus and been dealing with a sore right wrist. He lost sets in each of the first two rounds against 18-year-old Croatian qualifier Dino Primzic and Alexei Popyrin, when he challenged a heckler to “say that to my face.”

Against Etcheverry, he didn’t even face a breakpoint.

Not that No. 30 seed didn’t challenge him, really going for his ground strokes and chasing down drop shots — to the point where he had to veer off court to avoid the net in the third set and nearly crashed into the umpire’s chair.

As he got closer to victory, Djokovic started to put his index finger to his ear after each winner, urging more support from the crowd.

He closed with a pair of aces and said the win was "the best performance I had during this tournament.”

Next up he faces 35-year-old Frenchman Adrian Mannarino, who won a five-setter for the third straight round to advance 7-6 (4), 1-6, 6-7 (2), 6-3, 6-4 over U.S. Open semifinalist Ben Shelton.

Djokovic walked onto Rod Laver Arena when the match between lefthanders Mannarino and Shelton was going into the second set on the nearby Kia Arena. He was in a post-match news conference when the result of that match was relayed to him. Noted.

Djokovic beat Shelton in the U.S. Open semifinals one match before capturing his 24th Grand Slam singles title, and there was tension in the wake of it.

He copied Shelton's “Hang up the phone!” celebration gesture after that win and it has been a source of tension ever since. Reports in the French media last week had Djokovic confirming he mocked it in retaliation to some provocation.

On Friday, he elaborated. Djokovic started out be saying he had no problem with Shelton's overt confidence and recalled how he may have rankled one of the stars of the game earlier in his own career.

“I know certainly Federer didn’t like the way I was behaving at the beginning,” he said. “I guess I wasn’t the favorite type of guy to some of the top guys because I was not afraid to say that I want to be the best player in the world.”

But, he added, “I never, ever lacked respect.”

“Whenever I start a match, before the match or finish the match, I would always greet the opponent, always acknowledge,” he said. “Respect is something that I was taught that needs to be present regardless of what is happening.”

Without going into any detail, he said there's “some kind of line, non-visible line, of acceptable behavior towards the other player.”

“If a player steps over that line, then obviously it starts being annoying. That’s when you react or you don’t react, whatever. It just depends.”

That rematch will have to wait for another time.

Potential quarterfinalists in that section are 2023 Australian runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas, who beat Luca Van Assche 6-3, 6-0, 6-4, and No. 12 Taylor Fritz, who held off Fabian Morozsan 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2.

No. 4 Jannik Sinner is in hot form in the bottom of this half of the draw, advancing to the round of 16 without losing a set after a 6-0, 6-1, 6-3 victory over Sebastian Baez. He next faces 15th-seeded Karen Khachanov, who beat Tomas Machac 6-4, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (5).

In another night match, local hope Alex de Minaur had a 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 win over Flavio Cobolli and will next play fifth-seeded Andrey Rublev, who ousted Sebastian Korda 6-2, 7-6 (6), 6-4.

De Minaur entered his home major on a run of wins over three top 10 players, including Djokovic in the United Cup.

Rublev, who is on a seven-match winning streak after winning a title in Hong Kong, was careful not to upset the home crowd when asked about his next assignment.

“For sure, it’s normal that they will support Alex,” he said. “He’s a great player and a great guy.”


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