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Published Time: 02.06.2024 - 00:16:12 Modified Time: 02.06.2024 - 00:16:12

But Djokovic is a determined problem-solver. And once Djokovic got headed in the right direction in the fourth set, thanks to playing more aggressively on service returns and closer to the baseline during groundstrokes exchanges, the 30th-ranked Musetti could not withstand the charge. Zverev



World No. 1 Novak Djokovic wins a five-set thriller against Lorenzo Musetti to reach the last 16 at the French Open. (0:28)

Gasping for breath while leaning over with hands on knees, or taking so much time between points that he earned a warning, the 37-year-old Djokovic appeared to be exhausted at times against his much younger opponent from Italy. Musetti was propelled to the lead by a one-handed backhand, a deft touch at the net and a 5-for-5 success rate on break chances.

But Djokovic is a determined problem-solver. And once Djokovic got headed in the right direction in the fourth set, thanks to playing more aggressively on service returns and closer to the baseline during groundstrokes exchanges, the 30th-ranked Musetti could not withstand the charge.

One telling stat: Djokovic improved to 39-11 in fifth sets over his career; Musetti fell to 2-6.

Djokovic has spent more weeks atop the ATP rankings than anyone, but if he fails to return to the final at the French Open, he will cede that spot to Musetti's countryman, current No. 2 Jannik Sinner.

That's because a loss in this match would have been the latest in a series of disappointing results in 2024 for the oft-dominant Djokovic, who won 12 of the past 20 Grand Slam events he entered and hasn't been beaten this early at a major since the Australian Open in January 2017.

Not only hasn't he earned a trophy at any tournament this season, but he hasn't even reached a final.

That's why, a week ago, Djokovic assessed his mindset when arriving in Paris with a 14-6 record this year: "Low expectations and high hopes."

Novak Djokovic kept his French Open title defense alive with a comeback win in the early morning hours to advance to the fourth round in Paris. AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias

Those words also might have described Djokovic's thoughts entering the fourth set against Musetti, who never has been past the fourth round at any Slam.

The bundled-up spectators frequently chanted Djokovic's first name, or his two-syllable nickname, "No-le." Musetti heard plenty of support in Court Philippe Chatrier, too. The sound reverberated off the underside of the retractable roof, which was closed because of showers that arrived earlier Saturday, the fifth day in a row with rain.

That weather was partially responsible for Djokovic and Musetti not setting foot on court until 10:30 p.m., more than two hours later than originally planned. Tournament organizers moved an additional contest into the safe-from-rain main stadium ahead of Djokovic-Musetti to try and make sure the third round would get completed on time.

"I don't want to get into it," Djokovic said when asked the decision to move his match. "I have my opinions, but I think there are great things to talk as we're talking this match today and both Lorenzo and my performance, which stands out.

"I don't want to be talking schedule. I think some things could have been handled different way, but there's beauty as well. I guess winning the match as well at 3:30 a.m. if it's the last one of the tournament, but it's not."

This was a rematch from the 2021 French Open, when Musetti was just 19 -- and making his Grand Slam debut -- and took the first two sets off Djokovic, both in tiebreakers. But Djokovic did not go away, grabbing the next two sets, and Musetti eventually retired from the match because of lower back pain and cramps while trailing 4-0 in the fifth.

Once again, Musetti took the lead before succumbing against Djokovic.

This time, Djokovic was actually a point from taking a two-set lead while ahead 6-5 in the second-set tiebreaker. But he sent up a so-so lob that turned into an overhead winner by Musetti, erasing that opportunity for Djokovic. Then Djokovic missed a forehand wide to give Musetti his first crack at a set point, which was converted with a volley winner.

At the ensuing changeover, Djokovic got into a back-and-forth exchange with chair umpire Adel Nour over whether the clay court should be cleaned more frequently.

"So it's [a] problem to sweep the court every five games?" Djokovic asked. "I ask you to sweep the court, because there's so much clay. I don't know why it's asking so much at 1 a.m. after waiting 20 hours to play."

He would drop the next set, too.

Musetti had to know Djokovic would not go quietly. Surely, the bundled-up and vocal fans did, too.

Suddenly, Djokovic broke to 3-2 in the fourth set. He shook a fist and, as he sat in his sideline chair, motioned to fans for more noise. They obliged.

A similar scene played out as that set ended, with Djokovic making a long run to reach a ball and get it back over the net at an impossible angle. He windmilled his arms and then pointed to his ear.

Soon, he was the winner, roaring on the court while his wife jumped and shouted in the stands.

Earlier Saturday, fourth-seeded Alexander Zverev rallied from 4-1 in the fifth set to beat 26th-seeded Dutchman Tallon Griekspoor 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (3) and advance to the fourth round.

Zverev, who won the Italian Open last month, has reached the semifinals at the past three French Opens and avoided his earliest exit at Roland Garros since losing in the first round in 2017.

Zverev's trial in Germany for allegedly causing bodily harm to a woman began on Friday. The prosecution accuses Zverev of pushing his ex-partner against a wall and choking her during an argument in Berlin in May 2020.

Griekspoor fell short of reaching the fourth round of a major tournament for the first time and his record against top-five players dropped to 0-11.

In other men's third-round play, former US Open champion Daniil Medvedev won 7-6 (4), 7-5, 1-6, 6-4 against Tomas Machac and 21st-seeded Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime beat No. 15-seeded American Ben Shelton 6-4, 6-2, 6-1.

Their match was halted by rain on Friday night. Shelton was bothered by a left shoulder issue and had it worked on by a trainer.

"Playing a set last night with soaked balls, muddy balls, it kind of just, I guess, aggravated my shoulder a little bit," Shelton said. "But I went out there and did what I could today and gave 100 percent."

His exit was followed several hours later by that of another American, No. 14 Tommy Paul, who was beaten by No. 23 Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2. That left one U.S. men's player left in the bracket: No. 12 Taylor Fritz, who outlasted unseeded Thanasi Kokkinakis of Australia 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (4), 5-7, 6-3 at night to earn a debut appearance in the fourth round in Paris.

Fritz, who has been to the quarterfinals at each of the other three majors, is the first player from his country to reach the men's round of 16 at Roland Garros since 2020.

It was clear during the restart of Shelton's match that he was not able to produce his usual high-powered serves -- even before his left shoulder was massaged by a trainer. Auger-Aliassime, who got to the US Open semifinals in 2021, claimed Saturday's initial five games to close out the opening set and lead 4-0 in the next.

The and ESPN's D'Arcy Maine contributed to this story.

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