Former champion Novak Djokovic wore down obdurate Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut to grind out a 6-4 6-7(6) 7-6(4) 6-2 victory in the French Open third round on Friday.
Still fighting to find the form that took him to 12 majors, Djokovic huffed and puffed and demolished a racket in anger near the end of the second set, before regaining his composure to set up a last 16 clash with Spanish veteran Fernando Verdasco.
It was never comfortable for the 31-year-old Serb, though, and he found himself in dire trouble in the third set when dropping serve to love at 3-4.
He fell back on his old survival instincts, however, breaking back in the following game before playing a solid tiebreak to move to within a set of victory.
Thirteenth seed Bautista Agut, playing just a few days after the death of his mother, lost some belief in a fourth set played out in drizzle and Djokovic quickly wrapped up victory.
After consoling his opponent at the net Djokovic saluted the crowd who raised their umbrellas in approval.
“It was a magnificent four hours of tennis, I’m very tired but delighted to come through,” 2016 champion Djokovic said on court in accomplished French. “He plays with so much consistency you have to have patience.”
Djokovic is playing at his lowest seeding at a Grand Slam since 2006 having dropped to 22 in the world rankings but has now reached the last 16 of a Grand Slam for the 43rd time — second on the all-time list behind Roger Federer.
Zverev comes back from brink to reach last 16
Second seed Alexander Zverev saved a match point on his way to a grinding five-set win over Bosnian Damir Dzumhur 6-2 3-6 4-6 7-6(3) 7-5 in the third round, securing his first trip to the last 16 at Roland Garros.
It was the first victory for Zverev against a top 50 player in a Grand Slam, breaking a poor run of form in the majors that had left some commentators wondering whether the much-hyped Wunderkid would live up to the high expectations around him.
The German, 21 in April, looked to be on the brink of another disappointing early exit from a Grand Slam, with 26th seed Dzumhur serving for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set. But Zverev held his nerve to force a tiebreak, which he won comfortably.
Matching Zverev for power and stamina and showing a fine touch, with multiple winning drop shots, Dzumhur took the match to his bigger opponent, pushing the German to his second five-set encounter in a row.
In their only previous meeting, last year on a hard court in Shenzen, Dzumhur won in straight sets and he showed confidence throughout on Friday, until the closing stages.
While Zverev, whose brother Mischa is also playing in the third round, reached the last 16 at Wimbledon last year, he has largely failed to live up to his world number three ranking in Grand Slams so far. That said, Federer didn’t win his first slam until he was 22.
The first set was a stroll for Zverev as he moved Dzumhur around the court and overpowered him down the lines.
But the Bosnian, born in Sarajevo after the start of the war, learning to play on a shattered high-school court, showed fitness and guile, changing tactics and varying the pace to throw Zverev off his rhythm in the second and third sets.
Serving for the match at 5-4 in the fourth, he seemed to rush himself and lost his composure, losing the game to love and leaving the door open for Zverev to claw his way back.
“I wasn’t mentally ready to win the match in the fourth set,” Dzumhur said afterwards. “Zverev played smart, he let me make mistakes and he took his chance.”
In the fifth set, Dzumhur held match point with Zverev serving down 4-5, but the German pulled out a fine first serve, hitting the line and forcing Dzumhur wide on his backhand. Zverev eventually clinched the game after a six-minute battle.
The win notches up the 33rd tour-level victory for Zverev this year, more than any other player. He’ll be hoping to carry that momentum through into the second week of Roland Garros, although he faces some tough hurdles ahead.
In the last 16, he’ll play the winner between France’s Lucas Pouille and hard-hitting Karen Khachanov of Russia.
Dimitrov’s French hopes bite the dust early again
Grigor Dimitrov’s claycourt gremlins struck again as his French Open hopes bit the dust in predictable fashion in the third round against Spanish veteran Fernando Verdasco.
The 27-year-old Bulgarian has still never reached the fourth round in Paris and he admitted after bowing out 7-6(4) 6-2 6-4 that he will have to go back to the drawing board.
The fourth seed failed to convert any of the four set points that arrived when 34-year-old Verdasco served at 5-6 in a tight first set and after that he faded badly.
Verdasco is far more reliable on the dirt although he will have to find a way to end his fourth-round hoodoo at Roland Garros having fallen at that stage six times.
Dimitrov said he had lost his “nerve” after dropping the opener and said he would take a little time off to reflect on a European claycourt season that began with a semi-final run in Monte Carlo but ended with a whimper.
“Unfortunately I have to continually stop here, I mean, the same time,” Dimitrov told reporters.
“I just could never turn it around out here. And this year is the same thing. I definitely need to take some time off now to kind of reassess the whole claycourt season, to be honest.
“I think that’s going to be the number one priority for me now to kind of step out from the tennis for a little bit, try to watch some matches and try to progress and get better.”
Dimitrov said Verdasco had played a “stunning match” but it could have been different if the first set had gone his way.
However, Verdasco held his nerve under intense pressure, saving all four set points at 5-6, one of them with a second-serve ace that flew down the middle.
After that, the feisty Spaniard took charge and got well on top, breaking Dimitrov twice to take the second set.
Verdasco wavered for the only time in the match when he blazed a forehand long to allow Dimitrov to break back in the third set having established a 4-2 lead.
But there was to be no fightback and a forehand a whisker long when serving at 4-5 handed Verdasco victory.
Dimitrov will now head towards the grasscourts hoping to rediscover the spark that took him to semi-finals at Wimbledon in 2014 and at the Australian Open in 2017, as well as claiming the ATP Tour Finals title in November.
“You have to draw the line and look for the next chapter. In tennis you never know, one week can always turn things around for you. It’s been proven in the past,” he said.
Austria’s Dominic Thiem powers his way into last 16 showdown with Kei Nishikori
Seventh seed Dominic Thiem muscled his way into the fourth round of the French Open on Friday, putting out Italian claycourt specialist Marco Berrettini 6-3 6-7(5) 6-3 6-2.
Hitting searing forehands and serves of up to 224 kph (139 mph), Thiem was in combative form on Roland Garros’s No. 1 court, dubbed the bullring, eventually running away with the win.
The world number eight, who had a strong build up to the Paris major, winning in Lyon and making the final in Madrid after beating Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals, will take on Japan’s Kei Nishikori, the 19th seed, in the last 16.
The win means Thiem has reached the fourth round of the French for the third year in a row but what he will be aiming for is to improve on the two semi-final runs he made over the past two years.