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Australian Open: Novak Djokovic-Ben Shelton rematch thwarted by Frenchman

Novak Djokovic is starting to feel better about his health and his game, 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 in his 100th Australian Open match.

The 24-time major winner is 92-8 at Melbourne Park, where he’s won the title 10 times and is on a 31-match winning streak.

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

Djokovic has had health issues 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.”


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.

“I played better than I did in the first two rounds, so that’s a positive change, I guess.” Djokovic said. “Starting to feel better game-wise and physically, as well. It’s positive signs (but) I still haven’t been playing at my best.”

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.

Djokovic, as he got closer to victory, started to put his index finger to his ear after hitting winners, bringing more support and noise from the Rod Laver Arena crowd.

After closing with a pair of aces to move into the fourth round here for the 16th time, his celebration was calm.

“It was a great match,” Djokovic said. “The best performance I had during this tournament. I’m pleased with he way I played, particularly the first two sets.

“He raised his level in the third set (and) we went toe-to-toe.”

Djokovic took to the court when the match between lefthanders Mannarino and Shelton was going into the second set. He was in a post-match news 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 record 24th Grand Slam singles title, and there was tension in the wake of it.

Djokovic copied Shelton’s “Hang up the phone!” celebration gesture after that win, and comments in the French media earlier this week confirmed he did mock it in retaliation to some unsporting provocation.

He elaborated Friday that Shelton was going on court believing he can challenge the best players in the world and “I don’t dislike that at all.”

“But there is obviously some kind of line, non-visible line, of acceptable behavior I guess towards the other player,” he said. “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 continued his run with a 6-3, 6-3, 6-1. win over Flavio Cobolli.