Rybakina withdraws from French Open; Zhang chases landmark win

Djokovic, Alcaraz secure French Open last 16; Pegula, Rublev exit

PARIS: World number four Elena Rybakina withdrew from the French Open on Saturday due to illness, handing a significant and unexpected title boost to defending champion Iga Swiatek as Zhang Zhizhen chased history for China. Rybakina had been due to face Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain in the third round in the opening match on Court Philippe Chatrier. “I was not feeling good yesterday and the day before. I didn’t sleep last night,” said the 23-year-old Wimbledon champion. “I had fever and a headache and it’s difficult to breathe.

I tried to play in the warm-up but I feel it’s the right decision to withdraw.” Rybakina had swept into the last 32 without dropping a set. The Russian-born Kazakh was seen as a potential champion having arrived at Roland Garros with the prestigious Italian Open clay court title under her belt. She had been seeded to face two-time champion Swiatek in the semi-finals. “I guess with my allergy that my immune system just went down and I picked up something,” said Rybakina. “The doctor said there’s a virus in Paris.”

Rybakina said she will focus on recovery ahead of defending her title at Wimbledon which gets underway on July 3. “The plan was to play Berlin, Eastbourne, and Wimbledon. There are not many tournaments on grass, but the most important thing is to get healthy again.” Sorribes Tormo, ranked 132 in the world, will be playing in the second week of a Grand Slam for the first time. She will face either Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia or Brazil’s Beatriz Haddad Maia for a place in the quarter-finals.

Pegula, Rublev exit Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic battled into the French Open fourth round for a 14th consecutive year on Friday as Carlos Alcaraz also progressed, after women’s third seed Jessica Pegula and men’s seventh-ranked Andrey Rublev were dumped out of the tournament. Djokovic has made headlines for his comments about Kosovo this week but his on-court progress has been relatively serene, reaching the second week without dropping a set. The Serb star was made to work hard by Spanish 29th seed Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, who served for the first set and missed a set point in the second, but won 7-6 (7/4), 7-6 (7/5), 6-2 on Court Philippe Chatrier.

“I thought if I lost the second set we would play five hours today, but I’m proud of the performance,” said Djokovic. Two-time champion Djokovic, who has also made the French Open quarter-finals in each of the past 13 years, will take on Peru’s Juan Pablo Varillas in the last 16. The 36-year-old is hoping to break out of his tie with injured rival Rafael Nadal at the top of the men’s all-time list of major winners at Roland Garros. He is just one title behind Serena Williams’ mark of 23 Slams and two adrift of Margaret Court’s overall record. Djokovic, slated to meet world number one Alcaraz in the semi-finals, has now won three of his four matches with Davidovich Fokina.

The first two sets lasted two hours and 47 minutes, as Davidovich Fokina provided a stern test of Djokovic’s form. But the world number three broke when he trailed 6-5 in the opening set before overturning a 3-1 deficit to win a tie-break. Davidovich Fokina missed one set point to level the match before Djokovic won another breaker before being booed by the crowd for taking a medical time-out. “That’s something that I find disrespectful and I frankly don’t understand that,” said Djokovic, who made short work of the third set. Alcaraz thrashed Canadian 26th seed Denis Shapovalov for the loss of just seven games in the night-session match.

The Spaniard powered to a 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 victory, with the only slight blip when he trailed 4-1 in the second set. He reeled off seven straight games after that wake-up call, though, to set up a fourth-round meeting with Italian 17th seed Lorenzo Musetti who dismantled British number one Cameron Norrie 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. “I knew I’d have my chances in the second set to come back a bit and that’s what I did,” Alcaraz said. The 20-year-old is bidding for a second straight Grand Slam title after winning the 2022 US Open and then missing this year’s Australian Open through injury.

Sonego stunner Italian Lorenzo Sonego battled back from two sets down to knock out Rublev and reach the last 16 for the second time. The world number 48 was two points from defeat during a fourth-set tie-break but prevailed 5-7, 0-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7/5), 6-3 after three hours and 42 minutes. Sonego will face Russian 11th seed Karen Khachanov for a possible quarter-final meeting with Djokovic. “I played more aggressive than in the first and second sets because when he’s aggressive it’s tough to compete against him,” he said. Eleventh seed Khachanov ended Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis’ run with an entertaining 6-4, 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (7/5) win.

Stefanos Tsitsipas continued his bid for a maiden Grand Slam title with a 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 win over former semi-finalist Diego Schwartzman. The Greek fifth seed, who a blew a two-set lead to Djokovic in the 2021 final, will next play Austrian qualifier Sebastian Ofner after making the second week for a fifth straight year. American Pegula’s hopes were ended in comprehensive fashion by a 6-1, 6-3 loss to Belgian Elise Mertens. World number three Pegula has still never passed the quarter-final stage of a Grand Slam tournament. The former Australian Open semi-finalist will next face 2021 runner-up Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. – AFP

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