For the second consecutive match at the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic dropped the second set to his unranked foe. This time, versus Australian Alexei Popyrin, Djokovic was also pushed to the brink in the third.
But the 24-time Grand Slam champion regrouped, fending off four set points before ultimately winning the third set and closing out a 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3 triumph in a little over three hours.
After the match, Djokovic admitted that Popyrin was the “better player for a set and a half” and said he is still trying to find his form as he seeks a record-extending 11th title in Melbourne.
Popyrin, 24, hit more aces and winners than Djokovic but was undone by committing 26 more unforced errors than the world No. 1.
Djokovic also challenged a heckler to “say that to my face” during the fourth set. At 2-2, Djokovic paused, walked to the back of the court and yelled at the spectator before winning the next three games.
After clinching the triumph on a Popyrin error, Djokovic — who won his 30th consecutive match at the Australian Open — turned around to the crowd again and yelled, pumping his fist to celebrate.
Djokovic has been dealing with a sore wrist and said after his opening match — a four-hour, four-set win over 18-year-old qualifier Dino Prizmic — that he hasn’t been feeling well.
He credited Popyrin with bringing out a game plan to unsettle him.
“I haven’t been playing my best, but still trying to find form,” the 36-year-old said. “Particularly in the early rounds, you play players that have nothing to lose. They come out on center court to play their best tennis.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to build this as the tournament progresses.”
Djokovic entered with a 13-1 record versus Australian players at Grand Slams, but Popyrin fired up his serve and forehand to start denting the Serbian star’s armor. The crowd burst into life when Djokovic faced a break point at 1-2 in the second set and Popyrin converted it with a deft volley.
Popyrin wavered, however, serving for the set at 5-3 with some errors gifting Djokovic the break. But in the next game, it was Djokovic’s turn to wobble, and his increasingly ragged forehand offered a couple of set points.
One was saved with an ace before Popyrin produced a stunning lob to square the match.
Popyrin needed treatment on his calf midway through the third set, but Djokovic also looked flat. Serving at 4-5, the tension built as Djokovic missed a forehand and an easy volley and then slammed a forehand into the net, offering up three set points. Djokovic held firm to save all three, then another when Popyrin eked out a fourth chance.
World No. 43 Popyrin was made to rue those missed possibilities as Djokovic dominated the tiebreak and rolled on to victory despite some raucous fans doing their best to throw him out of his rhythm.
Djokovic’s form will offer some hope to his third-round opponent, Argentina’s Tomas Martin Etcheverry.