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By Greg Stutchbury
MELBOURNE, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Novak Djokovic was forced to scrap for every point against Radek Stepanek at the Australian Open tennis on Friday, but the world number one could not have had more fun in Rod Laver Arena.
The Serbian, bidding to become the first man to win three successive Australian Open titles in the professional era, prevailed 6-4 6-3 7-5 in the third-round clash but he and the Czech ensured the match was the best of the tournament so far.
“He loves the big stage; you saw how much fun he had. I also had a lot of fun playing,” Djokovic said. “It was a very entertaining match.”
Mindful of his 1-7 career record against the Serbian, the 34-year-old Stepanek refused to sit on the baseline and trade shots with Djokovic, approaching the net 67 times to try to cut down the angles and force his opponent to take risks.
“He is a very talented player, very skilful. He made a lot of great first volleys and made me play the extra ball,” Djokovic said.
”He was chipping and charging; not a lot of players do this any more, a lot of the players stay on the baseline.
“He never gives you the same ball twice. That’s something that makes him a different player from most of the guys.”
While Djokovic never really looked like he might lose the match, he had few opportunities to truly dominate and had some luck as well with several net cords going in his favour.
An exasperated Stepanek managed to get some respite from the net in a 14-minute first game of the third set when his shot clattered into the cord and dropped over into Djokovic’s side of the court.
Djokovic’s forehand lunge went into the net and he then proceeded to vent mock frustration at the net and the Czech, who simply thrust out his chest with arms outstretched and looked to the sky as the crowd burst into applause and laughter.
Stepanek saved six break points in that first game and the match went on serve until Djokovic did enough to snatch the break in the 11th to give him the opportunity to serve out.
Not that Stepanek allowed him a cake walk into the fourth round as he saved one match point by scrambling up, down, back, left and right to slam an over-the-shoulder forehand at Djokovic that set up a winning passing shot.
The Czech paused and pumped his arms in the air demanding, and receiving, applause.
Djokovic, however, had had enough fun by that stage, and he did not waste another opportunity as controlled the rally from the baseline before blasting a forehand that tipped off Stepanek’s racquet to seal the win in two hours 22 minutes.
“It was three close sets,” Djokovic said.
“Maybe I could have won the third set earlier but credit to him, he always played well when he needed to, so it wasn’t an easy match.” (Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Clare Fallon)