For a man who has won the Australian Open a record 10 times, Novak Djokovic has cut a lonely figure at times this week.
The world number one has progressed to the third round but it has not been straightforward, having to go four sets against both Dino Prizmic and Alexei Popyrin.
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The Popyrin match also saw him lose his cool, asking a heckler to come down to the court to “say it to my face”.
Djokovic continues to have a difficult relationship with crowds, certainly compared to the other greats of his generation Rafael Nadal and the now-retired Roger Federer.
It means he has to seek out unusual ways to find inner peace and, in Melbourne, that means meditation in front of a “special” tree in the city’s botanical gardens.
The Serb explained: “There’s one particular tree that I’ve been having [a] special relationship with, so to say, in the last 15 years.
“I got connected with that tree. I just liked it. I liked its roots and the trunks and branches and everything. So I started climbing it years ago. That’s it. I just have a connection.”
“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
He will be hoping the tree brings him a certain level of zen when he comes up against 30th seed Tomás Martín Etcheverry, the first-round conqueror of Andy Murray.
Djokovic is a master of coming through when not producing his A game but he accepts he will need to raise his levels to see off the Argentine.
“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,” he said.
“Particularly in the early rounds, you play players that have nothing to lose really. They come out on the centre 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.”
Earlier on Friday, one of Djokovic’s main challengers for the title, Jannik Sinner, will be in action as he takes on Sebastian Baez. Sinner has not dropped a set so far as he looks to maintain his strong form from the end of last year.
On the women’s side, the headline act is defending champion Aryna Sabalenka.
The Belarusian second seed has dropped just six games in advancing to round three and a meeting with Lesia Tsurenko.
Despite her impressive form, Sabalenka is eager not to get carried away and is focusing on maintaining an even keel.
She said: “”I’m not thinking about confidence. I’m just trying to play my best. If it goes to two sets, I’m happy to win it in two sets. If it’s going to be three sets, I don’t care. I just try to focus on myself and fight for every point.
“It’s not like these two matches give me confidence. It’s tennis. You have to be ready for anything. I’m trying to focus on myself and focus on bringing the best tennis I can.”
Coco Gauff is also in action on Friday as she takes on fellow American Alycia Parks, a player she knows well.
“I 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.”
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 17, 2024
Order of Play – selected matches
Day session (from 00:00 UK time)
Lesia Tsurenko v Aryna Sabalenka
Jannik Sinner v Sebastian Baez
Luca van Assche v Stefanos Tsitsipas
Alycia Parks v Coco Gauff
Alex De Minaur v Flavio Cobolli
Night session (from 08:00 UK time)
Novak Djokovic v Tomás Martín Etcheverry
Sebastian Korda v Andrey Rublev
Storm Hunter v Barbora Krejcikova
When and how to watch
The Australian Open is available to watch live on Discovery+ and Eurosport in the United Kingdom, with the day session getting under way from 00:00 UK time on Wednesday morning. The night session is scheduled to take place from 8am.
Djokovic will get it done – he always does in Melbourne – but he will need to raise his performance levels if he is to have a straightforward night against Etcheverry. He is again playing in the night session so there is the possibility of more interaction with a lively crowd.
Elsewhere, it looks to be a day of few shocks. Sinner, Tsitsipas and De Minaur should all progress with few alarms. If there is to be a surprise, and even then it wouldn’t be seismic, it may come in the match between Korda and Rublev with the American possessing the game to trouble anyone.
Sabalenka, Gauff and Krejcikova should all ease through.