Australian Open

Man on a mission, Djokovic comes through Couacaud test

Man on a mission, Djokovic comes through Couacaud test

FAVORITE. Serbia's Novak Djokovic in action during his second-round match against France's Enzo Couacaud.

Carl Recine/REUTERS

Novak Djokovic hits a roadblock in the second set but brings in the heavy artillery to whip French qualifier Enzo Couacaud in the final two

MELBOURNE, Australia – Novak Djokovic had to dig deep at times against French qualifier Enzo Couacaud but rolled into the third round, 6-1, 6-7(5), 6-2, 6-0, on Thursday, January 19, to continue his quest for a 10th Australian Open crown and a 22nd Grand Slam title.

The Serbian looked at his imperious best as he eased through the opening set but hit a roadblock in the 74-minute second when world No. 191 Couacaud upped his pace and intensity to level up the contest in a tiebreak.

Fourth seed Djokovic changed his shirt and brought in the heavy artillery to whip through the final two sets, setting up a third-round date with Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov.

“Enzo deserves credit for the fight, he played some great tennis, especially in the second set, he deservedly pushed the match into the fourth set,” said Djokovic, who hit 63 winners over the contest at Rod Laver Arena.

“I managed to respond well in the third and especially in the fourth… and yes, let’s keep it going.”

Dimitrov has won only one of his 10 matches against Djokovic and, as the Serbian was quick to point out, has never met him at Melbourne Park, where the former world No. 1 is unbeaten since 2018.

“I know him very well, we are friends, Balkan brothers. May the best player win,” said Djokovic.

Djokovic’s half of the draw opened for him earlier on Thursday when second seed Casper Ruud was knocked out. That followed Wednesday’s exit of top seed Rafa Nadal, who already holds 22 Grand Slam singles titles.

It could turn out that Djokovic’s left thigh, again heavily strapped against a hamstring niggle, will be the biggest obstacle to him landing yet another Australian Open title.

The 35-year-old took a medical timeout at 4-4 in the second set to have the strapping changed and fiddled with it at changeovers but otherwise appeared largely unhindered by the injury.

Couacaud also needed treatment when he turned his ankle nastily in the first set as he tried in vain to hold off a break of serve that gave his opponent a 3-1 lead.

The Mauritius-born 27-year-old continued to throw everything at Djokovic and played a brilliant second set, finally coming back from 3-0 down to take the tiebreak 7-5.

Djokovic was again warmly supported by the crowd, the acrimony of his deportation from Australia last year over his stance on vaccinations against COVID-19 apparently forgotten.

One fan attracted his ire in the fourth set, however, after repeatedly making noise while Djokovic was preparing to serve.

“He’s drunk out of his mind, he’s provoking, he’s not here to watch tennis, what are you going to do about it?” he asked the umpire.

Four men in fancy dress were subsequently escorted from the arena and Djokovic was soon crunching a howitzer of a crosscourt backhand winner to bring an end to the contest.

Zverev fulfills low expectations with second-round exit

Alexander Zverev slumped out of the Australian Open in the second round at the hands of American Michael Mmoh also on Thursday, fulfilling the low expectations he had about his trip to Melbourne Park.

The 25-year-old’s 2022 season lasted until the semifinal of the French Open against Rafa Nadal, when he suffered an ankle injury that would sideline him for months.

A bone edema kept him off the court for the remainder of the season and he arrived in Australia with a realistic view about his chances of going deep in the year’s first Grand Slam.

He had to come back from two sets to one down to beat Peruvian Juan Pablo Varillas in the opening round on Tuesday but overcoming a second lucky loser on Thursday was beyond him and Mmoh joined an American charge into the third round.

“I didn’t have any expectations. I didn’t have any goals, and it was a good test for me,” Zverev told reporters after the 6-7(1), 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 defeat.

“I played a five-setter, and I know where I am physically. That’s about it. I guess I still have a long way back to where I was.”

Zverev, runner up at the 2020 US Open and No. 2 in the world last year, said he had fully recovered from his injuries but still had a way to go to get back to full fitness.

“My foot is healthy, but I’m not at the physical level that I was,” he said.

“I’m not as fast. Definitely my conditioning is not as good as it was. So I think I still have a long way to go to there.”

Zverev kicked off his season at the United Cup team competition, losing both of his matches, but said his time in Australia had given him some encouragement.

“I think the last weeks I was getting better and better, and that is something very positive for me,” he said. –

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