Novak Djokovic playing his ‘best’ tennis ahead of French Open

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MADRID — Novak Djokovic is optimistic about his game going into the French Open despite going another week without a title.

The top-ranked Djokovic is yet to win a trophy this season while trying to regain his best form after not being allowed to play in the Australian Open because he was not vaccinated for COVID-19.

Djokovic lost to young sensation Carlos Alcaraz in three sets in the semifinals of the Madrid Open, when he was trying to make it to his second consecutive final after losing to Andrey Rublev in Serbia last month.

Despite the loss, Djokovic said he leaves Madrid feeling good about his preparations for the upcoming French Open, where he will defend his title.

“I definitely played very good tennis, I mean, the best that I have played this year,” Djokovic said. “Probably when the disappointment of losing this match passes, I will have a lot of positives to take away from this week.”

Djokovic said he felt he could have come away with the victory against the 19-year-old Alcaraz – one the hottest players on tour this season – if he had been “able to capitalize when it mattered” during the match of more than 3 1/2 hours at the “Caja Magica” center court.

“I had a lot of chances,” he said. “It was a fantastic match. Great battle.”

The Madrid Open was only his fourth tournament of the year, and third on clay. He lost to 29th-ranked Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in his first match in Monte Carlo in his only other Masters 1000 appearance so far.

Djokovic did not play in Indian Wells and Miami. He will carry an 8-4 record on the season into Rome this week, with one of those victories coming after Andy Murray withdrew from their third-round match in Madrid because of a stomach illness.

Djokovic had opened his campaign in the Spanish capital with a two-set win over Gael Monfils. He comfortably defeated Hubert Hurkacz in two sets in the quarterfinals.

The 34-year-old Djokovic said after the match against Monfils it was “his best performance of the year” considering he hadn’t played well and lacked rhythm in the few tournaments he had played.

Djokovic had reached the quarterfinals in the only other tournament he played this year, losing to 72nd-ranked Jiri Vesely in Dubai in February.

The goal now is preparing to do well in Roland Garros, where he will try to win his third French Open.

“I think it’s on the good path, definitely,” he said.

Alycia Parks reaches 1st WTA quarterfinal in Ostrava

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OSTRAVA, Czech Republic — American qualifier Alycia Parks is having quite the breakthrough tournament in Ostrava.

The 21-year-old Parks earned her first win against a top-10 ranked opponent by beating fourth-seeded Maria Sakkari 5-7, 7-5, 7-5 at the Agel Open on Thursday to reach her first WTA Tour quarterfinal.

The 144th-ranked Parks ousted former No. 1 Karolina Pliskova in the opening round – her first win against a top-20 opponent – and showed off her power by hitting 59 winners against Sakkari, compared to just nine for her opponent.

“I came out here not expecting anything, just playing my game, and it got me through the match,” Parks said.

Parks will next face former French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, who advanced via walkover when Belinda Bencic withdrew with a left foot injury.

Caty McNally, another American qualifier who is playing doubles with Parks in Ostrava, also reached the last eight by beating wild-card entry Karolina Muchova 6-1, 3-6, 6-1. McNally is also into her first WTA quarterfinal and will face top-ranked Iga Swiatek, who advanced Wednesday.

Djokovic beats Van de Zandschulp to reach Astana quarters

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ASTANA, Kazakhstan — Add Botic van de Zandschulp to the long list of players to have been schooled by Novak Djokovic.

Djokovic eased past Van de Zandschulp 6-3, 6-1 on Thursday in his first career meeting with the 27-year-old Dutchman to reach the quarterfinals of the Astana Open.

Van de Zandschulp earned one break point in each set but couldn’t seriously threaten Djokovic, who is looking for a second straight indoor hardcourt title after winning in Tel Aviv last week.

“(In the) second set I think I started to read his serve better and just started swinging through the court more,” Djokovic said. “Botic is a quality tennis player. When he has time, he can hurt you, so I tried to take away that time from him and I’m very pleased with the way I played, particularly in the second.”

Djokovic will next face Karen Khachanov, who rallied to beat Marin Cilic 2-6, 6-3, 6-3. If the 21-time Grand Slam champion gets past that one, he could come up against fellow former No. 1 Daniil Medvedev. The second-seeded Russian beat Emil Ruusuvuori of Finland 6-3, 6-2 to move one match away from a potential rematch of last year’s U.S. Open final, when Medvedev beat Djokovic to deny his attempt at a calendar-year Grand Slam.

Medvedev will first have to beat Roberto Bautista Agut, who advanced Wednesday.