MELBOURNE: Novak Djokovic scrapped his way into the Australian Open third round on Thursday to ramp up his bid for a 22nd Grand Slam crown, but several men´s seeds crashed out.
Second seed Casper Ruud, Taylor Fritz, Alexander Zverev and Diego Schwartzman were all sent packing on day four at Melbourne Park.
With the shock exit on Wednesday of hobbling defending champion Rafael Nadal, the top two seeds are both now gone.
With top-ranked Carlos Alcaraz also absent through injury, it presents a huge opportunity for Djokovic, who even before that was hot favourite to win a 10th Melbourne crown.
The 35-year-old Serb required a medical timeout and had heavy strapping on his left thigh against 191st-ranked qualifier Enzo Couacaud.
He was also bothered by some rowdy fans and at one point during the match demanded that a drunken fan be thrown out.
But Djokovic recovered his poise and fitness to beat the Frenchman 6-1, 6-7 (5/7), 6-2, 6-0 and faces 27th seed Grigor Dimitrov in round three.
"There was a lot happening tonight in the match," Djokovic, who has been struggling with a hamstring injury, told Rod Laver Arena.
His on-court interview was momentarily paused when a spectator shouted out.
"I love you too, thank you," said Djokovic, who has enjoyed a warm return to Melbourne Park following his deportation a year ago because of his stance on Covid vaccines.
"I love playing night sessions and let´s keep it going," he added.
Fellow seeds Andrey Rublev, Dan Evans, Holger Rune and Roberto Bautista Agut all also won in the second round.
But it was a bad day for some of the leading men´s players.
World number three Ruud was always struggling against hard-hitting Jenson Brooksby and the Norwegian went down in four sets to the American, 6-3, 7-5, 6-7 (4/7), 6-2.
The 39th-ranked Brooksby, who is on his Australian Open debut, will face compatriot Tommy Paul in round three.
Ruud, who could have become world number one in Melbourne, refused to blame an abdominal injury.
"I gave it my all, but in the fourth set especially it wasn´t enough," he said.
Eighth seed Fritz was also on his way home after wildcard local hope Alexei Popyrin beat him 6-7 (4/7), 7-6 (7/2), 6-4, 6-7 (6/8), 6-2.
"This is a dream and I don´t want to wake up at all," said 113th-ranked Popyrin, who was reduced to tears by the crowd chanting his name.
Zverev, the 12th seed, suffered another setback on his return from serious injury as he lost to 107th-ranked Michael Mmoh.
In the women´s draw, Aryna Sabalenka showed why she is a serious contender for the title by powering into the third round.
Also safely through was France´s fourth seed Caroline Garcia, a 7-6 (7/5), 7-5 winner over former US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez.
Belarus´s Sabalenka swept past 51st-ranked American Shelby Rogers 6-3, 6-1 in an hour and 27 minutes and faces 26th-seed Elise Mertens.
Sabalenka, who reached the semi-finals at the US Open last year, extended her 2023 unbeaten record to six matches. She won the recent Adelaide International without dropping a set.
It is a marked contrast to the start of last season when her serve completely deserted her, reducing her to tears during an Australian Open warm-up event.
Sabalenka served three aces against Rogers but, tellingly, no double faults. She talked openly about the hard work involved in turning her fortunes around.
"I worked a lot on my serve. You can´t even imagine," she told reporters.
"Oh my God, I did, I think, almost everything to try to fix my serve."
American qualifier Katie Volynets dumped out Russian world number nine Veronika Kudermetova.
The 21-year-old Volynets won 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 on Margaret Court Arena and then paid a heartfelt tribute to her extended family in war-ravaged Ukraine.
"It´s really a difficult time. Before, everyone used to be able to move about the country however they want to and go on with their days," said Russian-speaking Volynets.
"And now it´s just, you know, day-to-day.
"I really feel for them and to have their support through all of this is incredible."
Other seeds beaten in round two were Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, who lost to Magda Linette of Poland, and Russia´s Liudmila Samsonova.