An under-the-weather Novak Djokovic has survived a serious scare from local hope Alexei Popyrin to maintain his five-year unbeaten run at the Australian Open.
The world No.1 was clearly at less than 100 per cent for Wednesday night’s second-round match inside Rod Laver Arena, lacking energy at times and blowing his nose between games.
WATCH THE VIDEO ABOVE: Heckler pokes the bear as Djokovic confronts fan.
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Popyrin, too, was troubled by cramping but had enough to put Djokovic on the ropes with four break points that would have given him a two-sets-to-one lead.
Yet the imperious 10-time champion bounced back to save each one — although he felt he was lucky that Popyrin made errors — before the Serbian expertly navigated a tiebreak.
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If Popyrin had any hopes of taking the match to a fifth set they were extinguished through no fault of his own at 2-2 in the fourth.
Djokovic, stretching out his wrist, heard something from the stands and walked over to engage in a back-and-forth with a fan.
He gestured for the ticketholder to get out of his seat and “come and say it to my face”.
Djokovic immediately turned to the crowd and roared in celebration after winning. Credit: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/AP
Djokovic had a wry smile throughout the exchange but was fired up afterwards, winning four of the next five games to secure a 6-3 4-6 7-6 (7-4) 6-3 victory in three hours and 11 minutes.
He turned immediately to the crowd and roared.
“I was feeling really a lot of mixed emotions today on the court. Not a great atmosphere to play in, to be honest, for me,” Djokovic told Eurosport later.
“But you have to find a way to win … people made noise between first and second serve the entire match. It is what it is. Of course it annoys you but sometimes you have to accept it and go with it.
“But you know what really frustrates me is when somebody’s heckling. So I confront the hecklers. I think Kygs loved that!
“I invited a guy to come and tell it to my face whatever he was saying. He was saying a lot of nice things, he was apologising from far away and all of a sudden there’s absence of courage when he needs to face me.”
Kyrgios replied: “I said in the commentary box, I was like, ‘look, if you want me to jump in the crowd and sort him out I’ll do it for you’. I got your back 100 per cent.”
Popyrin was exhausted after the four-set battle. Credit: JAMES ROSS/AAPIMAGE
Addressing the fight he received on court from his actual opponent, Djokovic credited Popyrin as “the better player for a set and a half”.
“I don’t think I played at the highest level, some instances yes,” he said in his on-court interview.
“But also credit to him for tactically coming out with the right game plan and serving big. He deserves a big round of applause for his performance tonight.”
Popyrin smacked 14 winners to Djokovic’s four in the second set and brilliantly lobbed the Serbian to level the match at one set apiece before revving up the crowd.
Popyrin maintained his hot form early in the third set, including nailing a breathtaking backhand lob.
He took a medical timeout when leading 3-2 to receive treatment on left calf cramp.
Defeat became inevitable but Popyrin still saved three match points on serve when trailing 5-2, forcing Djokovic to serve out the victory.
The Serbian will face 30th seed Tomas Martin Etcheverry in the third round.
Earlier in Wednesday’s night sessions, Australia’s world No.47 Jordan Thompson won the first set against Stefanos Tsitsipas before being beaten by the Greek seventh seed.
Two of the final three sets went to tiebreaks as Tsitsipas wrapped up a 4-6 7-6 (8-6) 6-2 7-6 (7-4) victory in three hours and 39 minutes.
Tsitsipas will face world No.79 Luca Van Assche in the third round.
– with AAP