A frustrated Novak Djokovic challenged a heckler at the Australian Open and used it as his motivation to turn his second-round battle against home favourite Alexei Popyrin around as he extended his winning run at Melbourne Park.
An out-of-sorts Djokovic was struggling with a wrist injury as well as illness and admitted after his opening win against Dino Prizmic that he was feeling “under the weather”.
The 10-time Australian Open champion survived a tense third-set tiebreak against Popyrin after the Australian had levelled the match in the second.
Djokovic saved four set points as Popyrin looked to take a two sets to one lead on Rod Laver Arena, admitting afterwards that he was “lucky” to not fall behind.
And with the majority of the crowd supporting Popyrin and hoping to see the upset, Djokovic took issue with a supporter in the crowd and asked for them to be removed.
Before serving, Djokovic paused and turned to the crowd before identifying one fan in the stands.
After hearing a comment from the crowd, Djokovic challenged the heckler to “come and say that to my face” as the match approached the three-hour mark.
"Don't poke the bear" 👀
Novak Djokovic responds to a member of the crowd looking to get under his skin 🍿 pic.twitter.com/1S9wQxwemg
— Eurosport (@eurosport) January 17, 2024
The 36-year-old then resumed the fourth set and his level drastically improved following the incident, winning a succession of points in order to claim the break in the fourth.
Djokovic, who has not lost a match at the Australian Open since 2018, was strangely subdued in the second and third set but was transformed after challenging the heckler.
From there, Djokovic closed out a 6-4 4-6 7-6 6-3 victory in just over three hours to extend his winning run to 30 matches at the Australian Open.
Afterwards, Djokovic explained to Eurosport that there were fans who were “making noise between first and second serves the entire match” but he took exception to being heckled.
“It is what it is, it’s a grand slam, it’s a fight. Of course it annoys you but you have to accept it and go with it,” Djokovic told Eurosport.
“But what really frustrates me is when somebody is heckling me, so I confronted him. I invited him to come and say it to my face.
“He was apologising from far away. All of a sudden there was an absence of courage when he needs to face me.”
Djokovic’s old rival-turned ally, Nick Krygios, was commentating on the match and said on the TV coverage that he would “jump into the crowd to sort him out” if Djokovic wanted.
On his illness and injury struggles, Djokovic confirmed he was not 100 per cent: “I don’t want to get into the details of how I feel, but I’m not feeling my best,” he said.
“ I’ve been in this situation before but hopefully I’ll build as the tournament progresses. The positive thing about grand slams is you get an extra day of rest in between matches.
“I know what I need to do. Hopefully things go in a positive direction from here.”
The 24-time grand slam champion was also cheered on by dozens of Serbian fans at the Rod Laver Arena, where he is attempting to win a record-extending 11th title this month.
He will face Tomas Martin Etcheverry, the 30th seed who defeated Andy Murray in straight-sets on Monday, in the third round.