Djokovic Is Superb In His Dubai Return

Novak Djokovic acknowledges his victory in Dubai Monday (photo: DDFT)

DUBAI, February 24, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

The ATP Tour returned to the Emirates this week with the start of the 28th edition of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships at the Aviation Club. With three Top 10 players in the draw, Monday evening’s Centre Court session was highlighted by victories from two of them: top seed Novak Djokovic and third seed Gaël Monfils.

First, the World No. 1 and four-time Dubai champion Djokovic played his first match at the Aviation Club since 2016. He faced a familiar foe in 260th-ranked Malek Jaziri of Tunisia, who was given one of three wild cards into the main draw. The two opposed each other four years ago in the second round, which was won by Djokovic in straight sets. On Monday night, Djokovic improved his lifetime record in the Emirates to 37-6 with an easy and straightforward 6-1, 6-2 victory in one hour, a match that was never in doubt.

Djokovic raced to a 5-0 lead in the opening set on the strength of an 89-percent efficiency in winning his first serves while also dropping just four points on his serve. Coupled with Jaziri’s inability to win many points on his second serve, the Serbian closed out the 26-minute opener 6-1 and carried that momentum into the second set. Then, Djokovic broke to go ahead 3-2 when Jaziri served his third double fault and broke again with a backhand half-volley lob to take a commanding 5-2 lead. He closed out the victory on his racquet with his seventh ace on match point.

“I was very pleased,” said Djokovic during his on-court interview that followed his latest triumph. “I want to thank everyone for coming out on the opening day of the tournament. It was a great atmosphere with the Tunisian fans and the Serbian fans. I haven’t played in Dubai for three years and I missed it, honestly.

“I love this court, I love this city. … It’s a great city with a lot of sporting culture. This tournament has historically been attracting a lot of top players. It’s a pleasure to be here, again.”

Djokovic extends winning streak to 17-0

Djokovic arrived in Dubai with a 13-0 record in 2020 while sporting a 16-match winning streak dating back to last November’s Davis Cup Finals. At the beginning of the year, he won the inaugural ATP Cup as a key member of Team Serbia. Then, Djokovic captured his eighth Australian Open singles crown, becoming just the second player besides Ken Rosewall to win a Grand Slam title in three different decades.

When Djokovic was asked by the interviewer why he’s been so successful in 2020, he paused to think about the question. Then, he replied with a hint of laughter, “I just practice well, I guess. You know, I work as hard as anybody else, but I think, more importantly – for me personally – is working smart, and understanding what suits me the best, in terms of routine, in terms of modalities of training and recovery and things to do in order to improve myself on and off the court and in order to peak, I guess, at the right time.

“Grand Slams are – especially at this stage of my career – obviously the biggest priority. But, I treat every match and every tournament equally important. I try to give my best. There are a lot of people who come out and support all of us and expect us to deliver out best tennis. Hopefully you guys enjoyed it.” 

Later Monday evening, the No. 3 seed Monfils extended a career-best winning streak to 10 matches following his two title-winning efforts at Montpellier and Rotterdam by winning his Dubai opener over No. 70 Marton Fucsovics of Hungary, 6-4, 7-5, in one hour and 59 minutes. The victory lifted Monfils’ win-loss record this year to 14-2.

The 33-year-old Paris native overcame 26 unforced errors by hitting 20 winners while Fucsovics pounded 28 winners but committed 45 unforced errors. It left the World No. 9 Monfils feeling a sense of disappointment despite the victory. “Not much for me today, I’m not super happy about the performance I played tonight,” he said during an on-court interview. “It was a battle for me. I didn’t play my best tennis, but I fought for every point. It was a matter for me to run and to cover my court.

“Hopefully, for my next match I will show much better and have a good week.”

Around the Aviation Club

• Seventh seed Karen Khachanov of Russia reached the second round with a 7-6 (2), 6-1 win over No. 89 Mikhail Kukushkin from Kazakhstan in one hour and 30 minutes for his eighth win of the season. It was the first tour-level win for Khachanov over Kukushkin. Both arrived in Dubai after losing in the first round last week in Marseiile. Next, Khachanov will oppose either wild card Prajnesh Gunneswaran of India or qualifier Dennis Novak from Austria.

There were some difficult moments during the match,” Khachanov said. “I was a break down to times. That’s really great to keep that first set. I think it was (an) important one.”

• No. 80 Philipp Kohlschreiber came on strong in the second half of his match against Egyptian wild card Mohamed Safwat and won 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 in two hours and one minute. The 36-year-old German veteran hit eight aces and 30 winners against the 132nd-ranked Safwat and broke his opponent six times in 13 opportunities. Kohlschreiber won 71 percent of his first-serve point opportunities and outpointed Safwat 96-76. In the next round, Kohlschreiber will face Djokovic on Wednesday. It will be their 14th head-to-head match in a long-running series that Djokovic leads 11-2.

• Sixth seed Andrey Rublev, who arrived in the Emirates with a pair of titles under his belt this year in Adelaide and Doha – and has reached the quarterfinals or better in three of four tournaments – made his Dubai debut a successful one. The World No. 14 from Russia beat 17-year-old Lorenzo Musetti, the only #NextGenATP player in the main draw, 6-4, 6-4, in one hour and 22 minutes. The Italian, who made the most of the wild card he received into the qualifying draw by winning both of his matches in straight sets – against Alexei Popyrin and Evgeny Donskoy – became the first player born in 2002 to qualify for an ATP Tour-level event.

• Unseeded and 56th-ranked Richard Gasquet of France advanced with a 7-6 (5), 6-4 win over 93rd-ranked qualifier Lloyd Harris from South Africa in one hour and 24 minutes. Harris hit 13 aces, but Gasquet outpointed the South African 68-58 to advance.

• Tuesday’s featured Centre Court evening matches beginning at 7 p.m., (3 p.m. GMT) include: No. 2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who won his fifth ATP title in Marseille on Sunday, versus No. 27 Pablo Carreño Busta, followed by No. 5 seed Roberto Bautista Agut against No. 34 Jan-Lennard Struff. The Centre Court day session, which starts at 2 p.m. (10 a.m. GMT)  is highlighted by No. 8 seed Benoit Paire opposing No. 36 Marin Cilic and No. 4 seed Fabio Fognini against No. 37 Daniel Evans.

What they’re saying

• Philipp Kohlschreiber, a Top 100 fixture on the ATP Tour since 2006, on his love of the sport of tennis: “I’m getting old and needing more energy, not for the tennis but for the traveling. It takes more energy in your mind, but still I love the game. That’s why I’m competing.”

• Dubai resident Karen Khachanov on reaching the second round: “Yeah, was not easy opening match. Always first round is pretty tough. I’m really happy I could get the win. I have another match, another opportunity to play better.”

• Top seed Novak Djokovic on his first-round victory over Malek Jaziri: “It’s a great way to start the tournament. I think I’ve done everything as well as I imagined it to be for the first match. Of course, there’s things that always can be improved, things that can better. But I have to be satisfied with the performance.”

What they’re tweeting