PARIS: Novak Djokovic swept into the French Open quarterfinals for the 14th straight year on Sunday as world number one Carlos Alcaraz prepared for a tricky test against Italy’s Lorenzo Musetti. Third seed Djokovic, who is chasing a record 23rd men’s Grand Slam singles title at Roland Garros, ended the surprise run of Peruvian outsider Juan Pablo Varillas in straight sets. Djokovic, a two-time champion in Paris, won 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 against the 94th-ranked Varillas to book a meeting with Russia’s Karen Khachanov, the 11th seed who overcame Lorenzo Sonego in four sets.

“I had never played my opponent before. I knew he was a clay court specialist and that I had to earn the victory. It was the best I played this week,” said Djokovic. The 36-year-old Djokovic has yet to drop a set through four rounds. He is into a record 17th French Open quarterfinal after making the last eight at a major for the 55th time. “I am very proud of this record. I have put a lot of effort into my game and I am very motivated to continue,” added Djokovic. Varillas, 27, was the first player from Peru to reach the second week of a Grand Slam since Jaime Yzaga made the US Open quarterfinals 29 years ago.

Djokovic raced 4-0 ahead in the opening set only for Varillas to break in the next game and then have a chance to get back on serve in the seventh game. But once Djokovic held for a 5-2 lead it was plain sailing for him as he closed out victory in just under two hours. He holds an 8-1 record against his next opponent Khachanov, who recovered from a bad start to down Sonego 1-6, 6-4, 7-6 (9/7), 6-1 to reach his third straight Slam quarterfinal. Alcaraz is trying to return to the French Open last eight for the second year running.

He has looked every part the tournament favorite so far, but Musetti beat the Spaniard in their only previous meeting in the 2022 Hamburg final. “I remember the match in Hamburg,” said Alcaraz. “It was really, really tough. This is a match that I was really looking for, really want to play that match.” Musetti, the 17th seed, beat Djokovic en route to the Monte Carlo Masters quarterfinals earlier this year and is one of four men left yet to drop a set at the French Open. Stefanos Tsitsipas takes on Austrian qualifier Sebastian Ofner in the last 16. The Greek fifth seed, who a blew a two-set lead to Djokovic in the 2021 final, is into the second week for a fifth straight year.

Pavlyuchenkova fights back Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the 2021 runner-up, became the first woman through to the quarterfinals after rallying from a set and a break down to dump out Belgian 28th seed Elise Mertens 3-6, 7-6 (7/3), 6-3. The Russian, whose ranking has plunged to 333 after a serious knee injury, is the lowest-ranked Grand Slam quarterfinalist since the 2017 US Open. Pavlyuchenkova will take on Karolina Muchova for a place in the last four after the Czech saw off lucky loser Elina Avanesyan 6-4, 6-3.

Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka plays 2018 finalist Sloane Stephens in the night session — the first women’s match to feature in the primetime slot this year at the seventh time of asking. The French Open is the only major where Sabalenka, who has a chance this fortnight to overtake Iga Swiatek as world number one, has not reached the semifinals. Elina Svitolina has enjoyed a dream run in her first Grand Slam tournament since the 2022 Australian Open, following maternity leave and a break due to mental exhaustion after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

She has refused to shake the hands of Russian opponents on the WTA Tour, but the former world number three has called her upcoming opponent Daria Kasatkina “brave” for being more outspoken regarding the conflict than her Russian compatriots. “I’m thankful to Dasha for taking this position. That’s what you expect from others, as well. It’s really brave from her,” said Svitolina. Svitolina has won all six previous meetings and is eyeing a fourth French Open quarterfinal against a player who made the last four in 2022. – AFP