Novak Djokovic embraces pantomime villain act with blockbuster Alcaraz showdown looming

Novak Djokovic blows kisses to the French crowd after his R16 win - AFP
Novak Djokovic blows kisses to the French crowd after his R16 win - AFP

By Simon Briggs, at Roland Garros 

Novak Djokovic baited the Roland Garros crowd again on Sunday, as he eased into the last 16. But this time, by contrast with his ill-tempered showing in the previous round, he did it with a sense of humour.

Djokovic was briefly booed by the fans during the first set of his comfortable 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 win over Peru’s Juan Pablo Varillas. The barracking came as he was beaten by a flashing backhand winner and he responded by holding out his arms towards his support team in a gesture of exasperation.

But the mood of these notoriously mercurial Parisian spectators would turn on a sixpence, with the jeers suddenly becoming cheers.

Just two points later, Djokovic pulled off one of the feats of escapology that he is famous for, chipping back a series of Varillas attacks until his opponent yielded. Now he held his hand up to his ear, before waving at the crowd as if to say – Delia Smith-style – “Let’s be ‘avin you!”

Novak Djokovic gestures during the first set - AFP
Novak Djokovic gestures during the first set - AFP

To be clear, he was very much in pantomime-villain mode, and wore a broad grin rather than the angry glare we had seen on Friday.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Djokovic played down his previous criticisms of the local spectators, and described the crowd – which chanted his name during his on-court interview – as “great”.

“I didn’t say [on Friday] that the crowd is disrespectful, that’s not true,” explained Djokovic, whose complaints after his previous win over Alejandro Davidovich Fokina had instead been aimed at certain individuals “who love to boo every single thing you do”.

“[Today] I thought they were great, especially in the end. They gave me a very nice chanting and support. As a player, you always want to receive that love from the crowd.”

Varillas is a total newbie at this level, having only played in the main draws of two previous slams and losing in the first round both times. As such, he was a much more comfortable opponent for Djokovic than Davidovich Fokina, which probably explains the difference in Djokovic’s demeanour.

On Friday, Djokovic had roared aggressively at the fans on seizing the key second set – a response he later justified on the grounds that “99 per cent of the time I will stay quiet [but] sometimes I will oppose that, because I feel when somebody is disrespectful, he or she deserves to have an answer.”

This time, Djokovic needed only 1hr 57min to overcome Varillas, maintaining his perfect record of dropping no sets in the tournament. His reward was a 17th visit to the French Open quarter-finals, which – amazingly – is one more than “King of Clay” Rafael Nadal has managed.

This result also left Djokovic tantalisingly close to a first best-of-five-set meeting with Carlos Alcaraz, the man he has been exchanging the world No1 ranking with for the past nine months.

This would be a big moment for the sport, because the two biggest beasts of the men’s tour (at least, since Nadal began his injury-related decline) have never actually faced each other during that time. Indeed, they have only ever shared a match court on one occasion. That came in Madrid 14 months ago, and delivered a close and thrilling victory for Alcaraz.

As it happens, Alcaraz won through on Sunday by exactly the same scoreline as Djokovic – the only difference being that he was facing an opponent with real pedigree on this surface. Lorenzo Musetti, the 17th seed from Italy, might have despatched British No1 Cameron Norrie in ruthless style on Friday, but he was completely outclassed by Alcaraz in 2hr 8min.

Now both these heavy hitters need to come through their quarter-finals in order to set up that dream match on Friday. All the evidence suggests that it will decide the eventual champion, as the early exits of Daniil Medvedev and Jannik Sinner have left the bottom half of this draw looking short on clout.

Djokovic was asked on Sunday whether he ever looks beyond his next opponent – in this case, the burly Russian Karen Khachanov – to a match further down the line. “You always follow the top guys in your half or whatever,” he replied. “Of course you’re looking, you’re analysing everyone’s game.”

So far, statistics suggest that Djokovic and Alcaraz stand well clear of the pack. After four rounds, they are respectively winning 46 and 54 per cent of their opponent’s service games – both of which are outrageously high figures for the men’s tour.

The only other man lighting up the leaderboards after week one is an unexpected name: Chile’s Nicolas Jarry, who is due to play last year’s runner-up Casper Ruud on Monday. Having played three rounds, the 6ft 6in Jarry has dropped serve only three times – an intriguing anomaly at an event where most male players are broken at least once per set.

Djokovic wins 6-3, 6-2, 6-2: as it happened, below

04:01 PM

Djokovic wins in style

I think that’ll do it for the live blog. Djokovic looking very good there, against an opponent who was tailor-made for him. Thanks for following, the report will appear above. Cheers.

03:54 PM

Tim Henman

“When he says that’s the best he has felt since Australia he is not just saying that for fun, all the other players left in the draw are going to hear that and take note.

“He is playing incredibly and his first serve is going in 80% of the time.”

03:53 PM

Djokovic on Eurosport

“Great energy from the crowd and myself.

Best performance of the week. I like the way I am playing and I am feeling. Obviously challenges coming up.

The last ten days is the best I have felt since the Australian Open.

I just have to keep on a good path and not think too far ahead.”

03:45 PM

Novak Djokovic wins 6-3, 6-2, 6-2

Djokovic says thanks to everyone. Gets a nice hand from the crowd.

“Great atmosphere, I really felt the love today,” he says.

“He is a specialist on this surface, I tried to shut down the points, he is very consistent. This is the highest level I have played here. I am very happy.

“I am not young any more but I am happy to be winning a lot. It is not the same for me as it was ten years ago. I have to handle my body differently but I am very motivated.”

“It is a great pleasure for me to have my son and daughter here. They have to go home to Serbia soon for school - education is more important than Roland Garros. My son loves tennis. I am a different person when I am with him. I feel a lot of inspiration and love from him. Maybe one day he will play here too!”

03:39 PM

Djokovic wins third set 6-2 and that's GSM

Varillas holds and lives to fight another day. This has been, I imagine, the most significant week of his professional life.

Djoko serves, Varillas gets the return at his feet and Djokovic cannot get it back.

Serve and volley makes it 15-15.

And the next couple of points go Djokovic’s way too.

40-15 and it is match point. He serves wide, Varillas is miles out the side of the court and Djokovic has acres of space to put the volley into. He does, and it’s game, set and match Novak Djokovic.

03:33 PM

Djokovic 5-1 Varillas* (*denotes next server) Djokovic leads 2-0 in sets

Djokovic, 30-0 up, serves a double. That’s his third of the match. Varillas zero double faults but the problem for the Peruvian is that his game is about getting the ball in play and it has been too easy for Djoko. Still, a great learning experience. ND wins this game too and is one away.

03:30 PM

Djokovic* 4-1 Varillas (*denotes next server) Djokovic leads 2-0 in sets

The Serb puts the hammer down and this match is over, a second break. It’s 0-40 before you know it, Varillas wins one point but then slumps a forehand into the net and it’s just a matter of time now.

03:29 PM

Djokovic 3-1 Varillas* (*denotes next server) Djokovic leads 2-0 in sets

Djokovic holds.

03:23 PM

Djokovic* 2-1 Varillas (*denotes next server) Djokovic leads 2-0 in sets

Varillas saves one break point and then another as Djokovic’s forehand finds the net. But at the third time of asking, Djokovic converts, it’s a break of serve and if the writing wasn’t already on the wall, it sure is now.

03:18 PM

Djokovic 1-1 Varillas* (*denotes next server) Djokovic leads 2-0 in sets

Djokovic holds.

03:12 PM

Djokovic* 0-1 Varillas (*denotes next server) Djokovic leads 2-0 in sets

Varillas holds his serve. A few people are making a bit more noise in the crowd. Djokovic vents his frustration at the umpire, although that could equally well be because he has just hit a forehand long in a rally that he was having the better of.

03:07 PM

Only once has Djokovic lost from 2-0 up

in his career. And that was 13 years ago, against Jurgen Melzer, here.

03:05 PM

Novak Djokovic leads two sets to love

6-3, 6-2.

03:05 PM

Djokovic 6-2 Varillas* (*denotes next server) - ND wins second set

Real authority from Novak as he comes to the net to win a point, then serves an ace next up. Some shouting from the crowd at 30-15 disturbs Djokovic. Nails that serve too and gives himself two set points. Tries a chipped backhand volley but hits it into the net. Great length on a groundstroke draws the error and that’s game and second set, Djokovic.

02:59 PM

Djokovic* 5-2 Varillas (*denotes next server) Djokovic won first set 6-3

Varillas pushed hard here. It’s deuce. He wins the next point. Decent serve unreturnable for ND and Varillas has at least extended this second set by one game.

02:54 PM

Djokovic 5-1 Varillas* (*denotes next server) Djokovic won first set 6-3

Varillas is quick, he is nimble and he is a good defensive battler. But he’s not really able to put any pressure on Djokovic, who just looks bigger, stronger and more rounded. Which, obviously, he is. No disgrace losing to this. But Varillas is not able to get any sort of challenge going in this Djoko service game and it’s all very comfortable for Novak right now.

Varillas will serve to stay in the set.

02:52 PM

Djokovic* 4-1 Varillas (*denotes next server) Djokovic won first set 6-3

Djokovic wins the longest rally of the match, 24 shots. And Varillas is now officially in the soup. His backhand is letting him down, he’s missing the target, and he has been broken again.

02:47 PM

Djokovic 3-1 Varillas* (*denotes next server) Djokovic won first set 6-3

Djokovic consolidates his advantage in this set as he holds his service.

02:45 PM

Djokovic* 2-1 Varillas (*denotes next server) Djokovic won first set 6-3

Varillas holds.

02:44 PM

One or two comments from the crowd

and I really do mean one or two. Hard for me to tell what they are saying via the TV. Djokovic seems to take it in his stride. Certainly there are a lot of supporters for him here, too.

02:40 PM

Djokovic 2-0 Varillas* (*denotes next server) Djokovic won first set 6-3

ND holds his opening service game and has taken control of the second set as well. Lovely shot coming towards the net here from the gluten-free great, a backhand volley out of his own midriff. Makes the very difficult look very easy.

As an aside, I think Rolex make the worst adverts currently on TV. These are even more portentous and overblown than the golf ones.

02:37 PM

Djokovic* 1-0 Varillas (*denotes next server) Djokovic won first set 6-3

Shame, sorry to tell you that Varillas has been broken in the first game of the second set. His first serve looks distinctly powderpuff. He hits a nice ball once the rallies get going but he’s starting each point at a disadvantage compared to a top player.

02:29 PM

Djokovic 6-3 Varillas* (*denotes next server) - ND wins first set

But the Preuvian underdog cannot do much about this game. Djokovic serves it out without much alarm and it’s one set to love. Varillas hit some decent shots in that but he needs Djokovic to be well short of his best, and he isn’t. Djokovic is also moving well and hitting it nicely. I haven’t seen him grimace or flex out a knee etc.

Djokovic got 81% of his first serves in, hit three aces and one double fault.

Varillas only managed 58% on first serves so that has to improve sharpish. They have watered the court and the Peruvian now has a chance to serve.

02:21 PM

Djokovic* 5-3 Varillas (*denotes next server)

Varillas serves to stay in the set - and succeeds.

Juan Pablo Varillas serves - YOAN VALAT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Juan Pablo Varillas serves - YOAN VALAT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

02:16 PM

Djokovic 5-2 Varillas* (*denotes next server)

At 15-30, Djokovic changes things up a bit, varying the pace of his hitting, coming to the net and winning a point with an attractive drop shot.

Djokovic slices and Varillas steadies himself, using that extra split second, to crunch a double handed backhand down the line. Winner - and another break point for the Peruvian at 30-40.

Some people in the crowd are distracting Djokovic as he serves....  It’s windy in Paris, and it’s at Djokovic’s back here.

Brilliance from Djokovic at 40-40. He is on the back foot through every shot of this point but he will never give in. He stays in the point, somehow, then turns the tables with a perfectly judged forehand that Varillas hits back into the net.

Wraps the game up with authority now.

02:14 PM

Djokovic* 4-2 Varillas (*denotes next server)

Novak Djokovic wins a 22-shot rally and we need a deuce but Varillas produces an ace, holds his serve, and has a toe-hold in this first set now.

02:05 PM

Djokovic 4-1 Varillas* (*denotes next server)

Opportunity. At 30-30, Varillas produces a superb grouondstroke that kisses the line. Lovely backhand, that, and it gives him a break point. And he takes it! Fist pump. The Peruvian has got his match up and running.

02:01 PM

Djokovic* 4-0 Varillas (*denotes next server)

Oh dear, that is another break of serve. Djokovic is hitting the ball sweeeetly.

01:57 PM

Djokovic 3-0 Varillas* (*denotes next server)

Djokovic hold serve there with authority and Varillas is going to need something like a miracle, or Djokovic breaking down, to win here.

01:53 PM

Djokovic* 2-0 Varillas (*denotes next server)

Varillas is in a pickle right away. It’s 15-40 on his serve. He passes Djokovic cross-court. But at 30-40, an error, and a break of serve.

01:48 PM

Novak Djokovic 1-0 Juan Pablo Varillas* (*denotes next server)

Djokovic made to work for that first service hold, taken to a deuce. A couple of aces have close the door.

01:44 PM

The players are out on the court

Novak in an orange Lacoste shirt that is more or less the same colour as the surface. Rather confusingly, his opponent is wearing a similar colour!

The men have never played each other.

It is Djokovic to serve.

01:39 PM

Varillas quotes

“Last match was tough. He was serving big.

“This is a great thing for my country. There are not many pro players in Peru and opportunities to be a professional.”

01:36 PM

Djokovic on Eurosport

“It is normal to have doubts, no matter how much experience. I remind myself to stay in the moment and make the most of it. It is more challenging than it was earlier in my career. I do not have an end date in mind but I think I can still challenge the best players in the world. How long that goes on for I do not know.”

Good quotes from him I thought. Downplaying himself you might say.

01:31 PM

Juan Pablo Varillas factfile

Novak Djokovic needs little or no introduction, but the man he faces in this last 16 match is less well known.

Juan Pablo Varillas is from Peru and is currently ranked 94 in the world. The highest has has been is 76. This week’s efforts represent the highlight of his playing career so far.

He came back from two sets down to beat Shang Juncheng, and then overcame 19th seed Roberto Bautista Agut from a similarly desperate position. He beat 13th seed Hubert Hurkacz in the last round in a five setter.

So he’s clearly a battler and he’ll need every ounce of that heart today against the great Serb.

01:24 PM

So that win for Pavlyuchenkova

means that Novak Djokovic will be on court fairly soon.

01:18 PM

Djokovic to follow

This match will start after the conclusion of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova’s clash with Elise Mertens. The Russian is 5-3 up in the final set as we speak.

12:59 PM

'That’s something that I find disrespectful'

Good afternoon and welcome to Roland Garros where Novak Djokovic returns to Court Phillipe Chatrier this afternoon under something of a cloud.

The Serbian was less than impressed with the reception he received on court during his third-round win over Davidovich Fokina, during which he was audibly booed and jeered by the crowd.

“A majority of the people come to enjoy tennis or support one or the other player,” Djokovic said following his match, according to ESPN.

“But they are individuals. There are people – there are groups or whatever – that love to boo every single thing you do. That’s something that I find disrespectful and I frankly don’t understand that.

“But it’s their right. They paid the ticket. They can do whatever they want.”

The whole event has been one where Djokovic has been shrouded in controversy after seeming to take to a very public stance against the sovereignty of Kosovo after winning his first-round match.

This afternoon, the 22-time Grand Slam winner faces Peru’s Juan Pablo Varillas.  The world No 94 who beat the 13th seed  Hubert Hurkacz in the last round and will now face Djokovic for the first time in his career.

What is of concern for Varillas, as if facing Djokovic was not a lofty-enough in itself, is that he has played 15 sets en route to the fourth round. His conditioning will therefore go a long way to deciding whether this match is competitive or not.

FOr Djokovic, off-court matters have taken attention away from what has been a relatively straightforward start to his French Open bid.

Three straight-sets wins are exactly what he would have been expecting coming into Roland Garros but there have been some mumerrings that the 2021 champion might not have quite found his best stuff yet.

Now feels like the perfect chance to lay a marker down to the rest of the tournament.