LONDON, England, June 29 – Defending Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic avoided another Czech Republic Centre Court ambush when he reached the last 16 with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 win over veteran Radek Stepanek on Friday.
Top seed Djokovic, playing on the same court where Rafael Nadal had been stunned by world 100 Czech Lukas Rosol on Thursday, overcame dropping his first set of the tournament to see off 33-year-old Stepanek.
The Serb goes on to play compatriot Victor Troicki, who put out Argentine 15th seed Juan Monaco 7-5, 7-5, 6-3, for a place in the quarter-finals.
Troicki will be playing in his first last 16 tie at Wimbledon.
Djokovic found wily Stepanek, a quarter-finalist in 2006, hard to read in the first set as the Czech kept the champion pinned back by serving and volleying, almost an extinct technique on the slowing All England Club lawns.
But he won 18 of the next 24 games to storm to victory, taking another step closer to a sixth career Grand Slam title.
“I had break points in the first set but he came up with the big serves. It was a tough match, but I played really well in the second, third and fourth sets,” said Djokovic.
The Serb insisted Nadal’s fate, which was also played out under the Centre Court roof, had not entered his thoughts.
“I was focused on my own game. I knew Radek is a tricky opponent and very experienced,” he said.
“He’s one of the few players who comes to the net after every first serve. He has the variety of game to hurt anyone.”
Stepanek, playing in his 10th Wimbledon, was watched by wife Nicole Vaidisova, a former world number seven, and she joined the crowd in polite bemusement when her husband was ordered to change his shoes at the start.
His bright red and blue footwear were deemed to have breached the tournament’s strict predominantly white clothing and gear rule.
Instead, under the chair umpire’s orders, he opted for white and green on his feet.
French 18th seed Richard Gasquet, a semi-finalist in 2007, beat 12th seed Nicolas Almagro 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 to claim a first win over the Spaniard in four meetings.
Xavier Malisse of Belgium, who reached the last four in 2001, defeated Spanish 17th seed Fernando Verdasco 1-6, 7-6 (7/5), 6-1, 4-6, 6-3.
Denis Istomin became the first Uzbek to make the last 16 when he defeated Alejandro Falla of Colombia 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7/5).
Later Friday, six-time champion Roger Federer, who is seeded to face Djokovic in the semi-finals, takes on French 29th seed Julien Benneteau.
Meanwhile, fourth seed Andy Murray refused to accept that Nadal’s shock 6-7 (9/11), 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 defeat to journeyman Rosol had meant his possible path to a first final had been cleared.
For the last two years, Nadal had proved a bridge too far for world number four Murray, winning semi-finals in 2010 and 2011.
Nadal had also won their quarter-final meeting in 2008.
But with Nadal out of the equation, the 25-year-old Briton can start planning realistically to become the first British finalist since Bunny Austin in 1938, even of becoming the country’s first champion since Fred Perry in 1936.
Next up for Murray is Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis who beat the Scot at the All England Club in 2006.
“It’s irrelevant to me unless I reach the semi-finals. I have a guy who has played in a Grand Slam final and that’s my focus,” he said.
“If anything the draw has opened up for Philipp Kohlschreiber. He would have been expecting to face Rafa in his next match. I face Marcos and maybe he will have a performance like Rosol.”
Murray added: “I was surprised by Rafa’s defeat, but from what I saw of the match, Rosol just went for rockets and came out swinging.”
On the women’s side, World number one Maria Sharapova and four-time Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters are on course for an emotional last eight clash at Wimbledon after breezing into the fourth round on Friday.
Sharapova cruised to a 6-1, 6-4 victory over Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-Wei despite blustery conditions on Court One playing havoc with her serve.
“The conditions weren’t easy but it’s just about being patient and maybe a little bit smarter,” Sharapova said. “Considering the conditions, I’m pretty happy with the way I played.”
French Open champion Sharapova will play German 15th seed Sabine Lisicki for place in the quarter-finals in rematch of last year’s semi-final which the Russian won in straight sets.
Lisicki, who reached the last four as a wildcard in 2011, downed American teenager Sloane Stephens 7-6 (7/5), 1-6, 6-2 and immediately set her sights on a revenge mission against Sharapova.
“I love these big matches,” Lisicki said. “She’s a great fighter and is full of confidence now.
“It’s another challenge. I just have to go for my shots and can’t make too many mistakes.”
Clijsters, playing at Wimbledon for the last time, enjoyed an easier than expected path to the last 16 when breathing problems forced her 12th seeded Russian opponent Vera Zvonareva to quit.
Zvonareva, runner-up in the 2010 Wimbledon final, left Court One in tears after calling for a medical time-out midway through the second set.
She returned to play one more game but the breathing problem was still troubling her so she retired with 29-year-old Clijsters 6-3, 4-3 ahead.
“I heard her coughing a lot. After long rallies it took her a long time to recover,” said Clijsters, who will quit tennis after the US Open later this year.
“She’s a fighter. We’ve had some really tough battles, so it’s sad to see her have to pull out.”
Next up for Clijsters is a clash with Angelique Kerber, the eighth seeded German who will be playing in the fourth round for the first time after a 6-2, 6-3 win against Christina McHale of the United States.
If Sharapova and former world number one Clijsters both come through their last 16 matches unscathed the two giants of the women’s game will clash for a place in the semi-finals.