French Open: Sabalenka skips press meet after win; Djokovic advances

Aryna Sabalenka
Aryna Sabalenka, right, greets Kamilla Rakhimova after their third round match. Photo: Reuters/ Clodagh Kilcoyne

Paris: Aryna Sabalenka roared into the French Open fourth round on Friday but the Belarusian world No. 2 steered clear of political questions amid the war in Ukraine by skipping her post-match press conference citing mental health reasons.

Twice champion Novak Djokovic was later given a thorough examination of his physical and mental toughness by Spanish 29th seed Alejandro Davidovich Fokina before the Serbian pulled through with a 7-6(4), 7-6(5), 6-2 victory.

The 36-year-old said he was adjusting to the reality of his body behaving differently.

"Sometimes you need help from the physio during the match. Sometimes you need pills," Djokovic said. "Sometimes you need help from God or angels. Sometimes you just have to deal with the reality.

"Reality for me nowadays is that my body is responding differently than it did a few years ago. I have to adjust to this new reality."

Novak Djokovic beats Alejandro Davidovich Fokina
Novak Djokovic consoles Alejandro Davidovich Fokina after their third round match. Photo: Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Sabalenka was questioned about Russia's invasion of Ukraine and her country's role as a staging ground for Moscow's troops after her second-round victory earlier this week and said on Friday she did not feel safe in that press conference.

She added that her decision not to take part in Friday's press conference was supported by the French Open organisers, who said they would not fine her, and the second seed had an interaction with a hand-picked group of reporters instead.

"After my match (on Wednesday) I spoke with the media like I normally do," Sabalenka told the reporters after beating Russian Kamilla Rakhimova 6-2, 6-2.

"I know they still expect some questions that are more about the politics and not so much about my tennis.

"For many months now I have answered these questions at tournaments and been very clear in my feelings and my thoughts. These questions do not bother me after my matches.

"I know that I have to provide answers to the media on things not related to my tennis or my matches, but on Wednesday I did not feel safe in the press conference."

Fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas earned safe passage into the next round with a 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 win over Diego Schwartzmann that kept his hopes of a maiden Grand Slam title alive.

Top-ranked Carlos Alcaraz was equally imperious against Denis Shapovalov in the night session, blasting past the Canadian 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 to book a meeting with Lorenzo Musetti.

Alcaraz is one of the favourites to lift the title in the absence of injured holder Nadal, who was undergoing surgery for a hip issue that decimated his season after the Australian Open.

World No.3 Jessica Pegula had never beaten Elise Mertens in two previous meetings and the American's hopes of snapping that run to remain on track for a maiden Grand Slam trophy ended in disappointment with a 6-1, 6-3 defeat.

The 29-year-old Pegula particularly struggled against the versatility of Mertens, who ran her ragged with some delightful sliced forehands, drops, lobs and deep shots to breeze through the match in 82 minutes.

Daria Kasatkina was even quicker across the finish line against another American as the ninth seed dropped only one game in her win over Peyton Stearns.

"I have to be quick because I'm not that powerful like many girls," Kasatkina explained. "Physically I'm not that gifted, so I have to be quick. I have to find ways to win, to survive.

"So I have to do it with my legs, with the brain, and try to squeeze the maximum I can."

Last year's semi-finalist Kasatkina will need to show her best form again in the next round where she will meet former world No. 3 Elina Svitolina after the Ukrainian beat Russian Anna Blinkova 2-6, 6-2, 7-5.

Svitolina refused to shake hands with her opponent and was booed by some fans but said her decision was out of respect for the soldiers fighting on the front line following Moscow's invasion of her country.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the 2021 runner-up, got off to a slow start before finishing strong to down 24th seed Anastasia Potapova 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 to book a clash with Mertens.

Russian 11th seed Karen Khachanov advanced into the fourth round by stopping Australian wildcard Thanasi Kokkinakis, but it was the end for his childhood friend and seventh seed Andrey Rublev who lost 5-7, 0-6, 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-3 to Lorenzo Sonego.

Musetti gave Italian fans more reason to celebrate on their national day with a 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory over 14th seed Cameron Norrie, although Fabio Fognini lost to Sebastian Ofner 5-7, 6-3, 7-5, 1-6, 6-4.

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