Djokovic digs deep to blast past Bautista Agut

 - Alex Sharp

The 12-time Grand Slam champion struck 51 winners during a near four-hour-long battle.

Novak Djokovic on Friday navigated past Roberto Bautista Agut 6-4 6-7(6) 7-6(4) 6-2 to launch into the fourth round for the 12th time in Paris.

“I think it was a great fight, almost four hours. He's not going to hand you the win. You have to deserve it. For me, not having so many matches in the last period, this is great,” declared Djokovic who has posted more victories in Rome and Paris (seven) than his first six tournaments of the season combined.

“Of course I don't want to play four, five hours every match, but I think it was a great test. The last set was actually the best set that I have played so far in the tournament. I don't feel too exhausted. That's the good news, as well. I'm just looking forward to the next challenge.”

The 2016 French champion had prevailed in their previous three clay encounters for the loss of a single set and proved his prowess in the opening exchanges.

He chalked up the first break point chance at 4-3 with an exceptional lunging backhand volley, but had to wait two games later to clinch the opener when he sent a forehand catapulting past the Spaniard.

Djokovic looked to turn the screw and an arrowed backhand, struck well outside the doubles tramlines, sailed over the net post for a winner to cement a 3-0 lead.

Undeterred, Bautista Agut hauled himself back to 4-4, with his forehand wing in particular offering more punch. Djokovic hooked a forehand wide on his own set point at 5-4 and saw another two sets points come and go at 6-5 following marathon rallies on Court Suzanne-Lenglen.

In the tie-break, Djokovic battled back from a two-point deficit twice, but at 6-6 flashed a costly forehand into the net tape, enabling the 13th seed to steal the second set.

“At times in my career, these kind of situations, when I would scream or throw a racket, it would kind of wake me up and help me to just kind of free myself from that pressure that is just building throughout the match, but there are times when it doesn't help,” explained Djokovic, who obliterated a frame on the red dirt.

“It's really hard to say what's the right thing to do. I'm not proud of doing that, to be honest, but at times, it happens. You can't control emotions, at least in my opinion. You can observe them, you can try to master the ability to avoid getting too much into situations which compromise your focus and composure, but you can't control them.”

The Spaniard, chasing a third successive Roland Garros fourth-round ticket, pinned Djokovic behind the baseline to leap 3-1 ahead in the third. However, an exquisite drop shot from the increasingly frustrated Djokovic provided the platform to break back.

World No.22 Djokovic, playing at his lowest ranking since October 2006, looked in trouble having surrendered serve to love at 3-4 following a blistering backhand return from Bautista Agut.

Suddenly Djokovic clicked back into gear, regaining that focus and composure. An inside out forehand winner provided the catalyst for a ruthless finish.

The 31-year-old somehow sprinted down a drop shot and his laser-like reactions helped him put away the volley for 5-5, prompting the Serb to orchestrate the crowd into rapturous applause.

He stormed through the tie-break and began illustrating glimpses of his all-conquering form of 2016 as he sauntered through the final set.

“After three or four hours, to be able to play that way and finish the match in tough conditions against a player who doesn't miss a lot and puts a lot of balls back, that's something that gives me great deal of confidence,” Djokovic reflected.

The Serbian’s reward is a fourth-round duel with Fernando Verdasco, who dismantled fourth seed Grigor Dimitrov 7-6(4) 6-2 6-4 out on the ‘Bullring’ Court No.1.

Bautista Agut and Djokovic shared a warm embrace at the net and the Spaniard is adamant his opponent will return to the upper echelons of the sport.

“I had my chance in the third set, and I couldn't make it. When you play against a great champion, you don't have many opportunities,” he said.

“He (Djokovic) is a great champion. He is one of the best tennis players in the history. Of course, if he keeps pushing like this and fighting, as he always has, he will be on the top again.”