Popyrin stuns Felix A-A in Rome
Alexei Popyrin's stellar year has continued with a brilliant win on Italian clay against Felix Auger-Aliassime.
The 23-year-old from Sydney won out 6-4 4-6 7-5 on Friday in a three-hour, 17-minute epic on Grand Stand Arena in Rome.
Auger-Aliassime, Canada's world No.10, struck 38 winners but Popyrin held his own to rattle back 36.
The Australian qualifier made his decisive move when he clinched the only break of the deciding set in the 11th game with a stunning backhand pass.
Popyrin then held his nerve on his own serve to book a third-round spot against Roman Safiullin, who beat No.22 seed Sebastian Korda in straight sets.
Remarkably, Popyrin – ranked No.77 in the world – also beat Auger-Aliassime in Adelaide in January.
He beat Taylor Fritz at the Australian Open for good measure, so Friday's win moved him to 3-0 against Top 10 opponents this season.
Fellow Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis was unlucky to run into local hope Jannik Sinner. The Italian was nearly unbeatable on his serve while winning 6-1 6-4.
Sinner won all 16 of his service points in the first set, and 36 of 39 overall with strong home support behind him.
Sinner closed it out in style with a serve out wide and a swinging forehand volley winner into the open court on his second match point.
"I'm happy about my level today," Sinner said. "I felt the ball very well."
Sinner will next play Russian qualifier Alexander Shevchenko, who beat Sebastian Baez 6-3 6-4.
Ranked a career-high No.8 this week, Sinner is in the same half of the draw as six-time Rome champion Novak Djokovic, who beat 61st-ranked Tomas Martin Etcheverry in the night session.
Djokovic began his hunt for a seventh Italian Open title by winning 7-6 (7-5) 6-2.
He got off to a shaky start by dropping his serve in the opening game. The Serbian, who pulled out of the Madrid Open last month, wore a compression sleeve on his right arm, prompting speculation about a niggling elbow problem.
He also appeared unwell at one point and asked his team for medical assistance during a changeover.
The Argentinian forced a tiebreaker in the first set, then raced ahead 5-3, but Djokovic began to dictate terms by stretching the rallies and clawed his way back to wrap up the set before grabbing an early break in the next.
A more relaxed Djokovic then mixed up his game with some delicate drops en route to a 5-3 lead, and closed out the victory on his serve.
"I haven't played too many clay-court matches this season but you can say it was the best one so far," said Djokovic.
Italian veteran Fabio Fognini celebrated a 6-3 7-6 (8-6) win over Miomir Kecmanovic by bringing his 5-year-old son, Federico, on to the court with him.
Grigor Dimitrov beat Stan Wawrinka 6-4 7-6 (7-3) and will next play Djokovic or Etcheverry; Gregoire Barrere eliminated 11th seed Karen Khachanov 4-6 6-4 7-6 (7-4).
In women's action, top-ranked Iga Swiatek opened her bid for a third straight Rome title with a 6-0 6-0 rout of former French Open finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova – her 12th consecutive win in the Italian capital.
Paula Badosa defeated Ons Jabeur, last year's runner-up, 6-1 6-4, and ninth-seeded Maria Sakkari beat Barbora Strycova 6-1 6-3.