‘Tell it to my face’: Novak Djokovic responds to heckling fan during Australian Open win over Alexei Popyrin

Novak Djokovic was tested on the court in a tough second-round Australian Open win over home favorite Alexei Popyrin, but the Serb was also riled by at least one member of the crowd.

During his 6-3 4-6 7-6(4) 6-3 victory, Djokovic confronted a heckling spectator and told the fan in question to come down and to say what he wanted to say to his face.

“I mean, you don’t want to know,” Djokovic said when asked by reporters what the heckler said to him. “There was a lot of things that were being told to me on the court, particularly from that corner and the same side the other corner.

“I was tolerating it for most of the match. At one point I had enough, and I asked him whether he wants to come down and tell it to my face.

“When you confront somebody, unfortunately for him, he didn’t have the courage to come down … if you’re such a tough man, tough guy, come down and tell it to my face, and let’s have a discussion about it.

“He was apologizing from far away. That’s all it is.”

Djokovic, who has a record 24 grand slam men’s singles titles, including a record 10 Australian Open titles, said the confrontation with the fan might have sparked something in him, as he previously felt “quite flat” for stretches of the match.

“Maybe that was needed for me to be shaken up a bit and start to find the kind of intensity on the court that I needed to have all match,” he said.

Djokovic added that it “upsets” him if there are people in the crowd who take things too far, but insisted that he’s happy for fans to shout from the stands as long as nobody “crosses the line.”

“People have a few drinks … I guess late at night as well, that probably also has an effect on how they feel and behave,” he said.

“That’s OK. People pay tickets to come and watch us. They want to see the show. They want to have fun. They’re allowed to do that. There’s no issue in terms of I never asked anyone to leave the stadium.

“I never asked the chair umpire to take somebody out. I wouldn’t do that because he paid his ticket, and he has the right to be there and say what he wants to say and behave how he wants to behave,” added Djokovic, who said the fan had offended him and insulted him.

Much like the atmosphere, the match wasn’t pretty but Djokovic eventually booked his spot in the 2024 Australian Open third round.

Djokovic, 36, looked far from his dominant best, but the No. 1 seed was able to race away during the second half of the match to continue his run for a record-extending 11th Australian Open men’s title.

Djokovic hits a return against Popyrin. - Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images
Djokovic hits a return against Popyrin. - Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images

The match seemed to hinge on the 10th game in the third set with Djokovic saving four set points which would have seen Popyrin go into a 2-1 lead and holding all the momentum.

But the 24-time grand slam singles champion showed all his experience to stave off the 24-year-old Popyrin and save the game, before winning the set in a tiebreak and keeping his foot on the pedal in the fourth set to clinch the victory.

The Serbian talked about the crucial moment in their encounter afterwards, explaining how he had to capitalize on what was offered to him.

“He had quite an easy forehand and he missed it,” the world No. 1 said in his on-court interview. “I didn’t do anything special, and I was lucky on that point, on that game, to get away. He was the better player I think for a set and a half. In the second set and third set, he was the better player.

“Things changed around, and the momentum shifted in the tie-break. I managed to put the ball more in the court than he did. I don’t think I played at the highest level. In some instances, yes, but also credit to him for tactically coming up with the right game plan and serving big. He deserves a big round of applause.”

During his opening two matches at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Djokovic hasn’t played at the imperious levels we’ve come to expect from him.

He dropped a set in his opening round match against Dino Prižmić and he struggled for consistency against Popyrin.

Djokovic hit 32 unforced errors while Popyrin hit 58 over their four sets.

According to CNN contributor and tennis journalist Ravi Ubha, this is the first time in Djokovic’s Australian Open career that he has dropped a set in his first two rounds at the grand slam.

Djokovic will now face Argentina’s 30th seed Tomás Martín Etcheverry in the third round.

When asked if he expected to raise his level for his next match, Djokovic said he “sincerely hopes so.”

“That’s what it’s going to take for me to go deep in the tournament. I haven’t been playing my best, I’m still trying to find my form.

“Particularly in the early rounds, you play players that have nothing to lose really. They come out on the center court and try to play their best match, their best tennis, and I think both my first and second-round opponents were great quality tennis players.

“I managed to find a way to win in four. That’s what counts in the end, and hopefully, I’ll be able to build as this tournament progresses.”

Gauff sets up an all-American clash

Elsewhere on Wednesday, Coco Gauff set up another all-American clash in the third round of the Australian Open as after she beat compatriot Caroline Dolehide 7-6(2) 6-2.

The world No. 4 continued her unbeaten start to 2024, improving her record to 7-0. She has dropped just one set over that run.

Gauff will now face world No. 82 Alycia Parks after the 23-year-old beat 32nd-seed Leylah Fernandez in straight sets to reach the third round of a grand slam for the first time in her career.

Gauff hits a forehand during her second round match against Dolehide. - Issei Kato/Reuters
Gauff hits a forehand during her second round match against Dolehide. - Issei Kato/Reuters

Following her victory, Gauff explained that she’s known Parks since they were nine years old and is familiar with her game.

“Used to practice with her and her sister,” Gauff said. “We both lived in Delray Beach, or in that area. I know her very well. I always root for her – obviously not for the next match.

“She has a big game, big serve, big shots, very athletic. I think she’s one of the most athletic players on tour. Like me, her, Sloane (Stephens) and Iga (Świątek) are probably up there – and (Maria) Sakkari. Those would be my top five. She’s up there.”

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