Most of the carnage occurred in the men’s draw — 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.
TUNISIA’S Ons Jabeur in action against Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic at the Rod Laver Arena.—AFP
“There was a lot happening tonight in the match,” Djokovic, who has been struggling with a hamstring injury, told the 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.
Fellow seeds Andrey Rublev, Dan Evans, Holger Rune and Roberto Bautista Agut all also won in the second round.
Among the leading men’s players who lost out Thursday, 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.
Brooksby’s win was followed by lucky loser Michael Mmoh stunning German former world number two Zverev 6-7(1-7), 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 to make it eight American men in the third round.
Eighth seed Fritz was unable to join the American charge as he was upset 6-7 (4-7), 7-6 (7-2), 6-4, 6-7 (6-8), 6-2by Australian Alexei Popyrin, while Danish ninth seed Rune despatched Californian Maxime Cressy 7-5, 6-4, 6-4.
Rublev continued to carve his way through the men’s draw with a 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (2-7), 6-3 win over Emil Ruusuvuori, the third-set setback coming after a row with the umpire over whether the fifth seed was swearing in Russian.
He will next face Briton Evans, who beat Jeremy Chardy 6-4, 6-4, 6-1 after the Frenchman also fell out with the chair official when a ball dropped from his pocket during a rally.
After two days of severe weather disruptions, Melbourne Park escaped extreme heat or rain on Thursday with play continuing well into the early hours of the morning to get the second round completed on schedule.
In the women’s draw it looked as if most of the top seeds would sail through.
But after the clock ticked past midnight, Tunisian number two seed Jabeur was beaten 6-1, 5-7, 6-1 in 1hr 41min by Czech world number 86 Marketa Vondrousova.
It left Jabeur still waiting to win a maiden Grand Slam title.
Earlier in the day, Aryna Sabalenka showed why she is a serious contender by powering into the third round.
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.”
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, while Belinda Bencic continued her fine form with a 7-6 (7-3), 6-3 win over American Claire Liu.
American qualifier Katie Volynets dumped out Russian world number nine Veronika Kudermetova 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 and Magda Linette joined fellow Pole and top seed Iga Swiatek in the third round with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 upset of 16th seed Anett Kontaveit, while Croatian Donna Vekic downed 18th seed Liudmila Samsonova 6-3, 6-0.