A Battle Of Survival As Djokovic Overcomes Monfils In Dubai

Novak Djokovic saves three match points to reach Dubai final (photo: DDFT)

DUBAI, February 28, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Four-time Dubai champion and top seed Novak Djokovic and third seed Gaël Monfils reached their semifinal showdown at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships Friday evening riding high. When they left Centre Court at the Aviation Club in Dubai two hours and 35 minutes later, one was hobbled and exhausted while the other was relieved to be able to play on for another day.

The World No. 1 Djokovic fought off three match points in the second set before overcoming Monfils, 2-6, 7-6 (8), 6-1, for his 40th victory in the Emirates. Next, he advances into Saturday’s final against second seed Stefanos Tsitsipas with a chance at winning his fifth Dubai title in six tries.

“It’s like being on the edge of a cliff,” Djokovic suggested in his on-court interview about what it’s like facing match points with the odds against him. “You know there is no way back so you have to jump over and try to find a way to survive, I guess, and pray for the best and believe that you can make it, that there is something that is going to help you.”

Djokovic arrived on Centre Court with an unstoppable 16-0 record this season, including an Australian Open title, and a 19-0 mark dating back to last November’s Davis Cup Finals. Meanwhile, Monfils, who had lifted trophies in Montpelier and Rotterdam earlier this month, came into his latest tussle against Djokovic in the midst of a career-best winning streak that had reached 12 matches. He’d also won 24 consecutive sets.

It should be highlighted that the agile and artistic Frenchman from Paris had never beaten Djokovic – and still hasn’t. In fact, the Serbian now owns Monfils with a 17-0 lifetime win-loss record that began with a five-set win at the 2005 US Open and, until Friday, most recently, saw Djokovic win in straight sets at the 2020 ATP Cup.

Following his quarterfinal victory Thursday night, Monfils was asked during his on-court interview just what game plan he might bring against Djokovic, he demurred: “I don’t know what the plan will be. I had 16 plans already and they all failed.”

This time, Monfils almost succeeded because Djokovic’s survival hung in the balance after he lost the opening set, failed to convert two set points at 5-4 and another three at 6-5 in the second set and, then, found himself trailing in the tiebreak 6-3.

At that point, many were asking themselves just whose winning streak would end in the Emirates? Better yet, was there anyone out there that believed Monfils could beat Djokovic? After all, the Serbian was struggling much of the match while trying to get on track.

As it happened, Djokovic fought his way out of a do-or-die crisis and leveled the match on his eighth set point. Then, he dominated Monfils in the third set, holding his French opponent to just seven points. It should be noted that Monfils, who was eliminated in the semifinals by Tsitsipas a year ago, took two tumbles late in the match and never quite recovered his earlier mojo.

“He was eating everything back in the court,” Djokovic explained during his press conference afterward. “I mean, I made a lot of unforced errors, especially first set, beginning of the second. Just wasted a lot of mid-court short balls. Just wasn’t working. I was kind of flat with my feet. Or, when I was coming in, he was easily finding a way to make a passing shot.

“It was tough. It was just one of those matches where you have to hang in I knew if I managed somehow to get back in the second set, hold my serve, I’ll get chances. That’s what happened. From this perspective, it was better for me to actually win in (the) tiebreak because it got him obviously more tired. I should have I guess won the set (at) 5-4, 6-5. Many missed opportunities.

“I just wasn’t taking my chances when. I was having rally on those set points. But that kind of turned around from 3- 6 in the tiebreak. From that moment onward, I felt I was going through the ball better. Obviously, third set it’s hard to measure it because (Monfils) was injured from the third game of the third set and it wasn’t even close to what he played in the first two hours.”

Tsitsipas solid in returning to Dubai final

Stefanos Tsitsipas has been in a comfortable playing zone the past two weeks. It began last week when the rising Greek star successfully defended a title for the first time in his career in Marseille and it’s continued this week in Dubai, where he was a finalist last year. Tsitsipas came into his semifinal match against Daniel Evans having won seven straight – winning 14 of 15 sets in that same time span – and in the Emirates, his service had been broken only twice this week.

Meanwhile, the No. 37 Evans from Great Britain, has enjoyed an incredible week, reaching his first ATP 500 semifinal and fourth semifinal overall. The British No. 1 beat two Top 20 opponents in Dubai – Fabio Fognini and Andrey Rublev – with an aggressive style of play and gutted out three quality victories to reach his encounter with Tsitsipas.

However, the day belonged to Tsitsipas, who ended the run of the unseeded Evans, 6-2, 6-3. The silver lining for Evans is that he will be ranked in the Top 30 for the first time next week.

In the early stages of the first semifinal match of the day, the World No. 6 Tsitisipas broke Evans in the fifth game to go ahead 3-2 with a demonstrative cross-court backhand winner that brought the fans at the Aviation Club to their feet. With a bit of tension released, he followed it up in the next game with his first service ace and went on to an easy hold as he dictated most of the rallies. Then, Tsitsipas broke Evans once again to gain a double-break lead of 5-2 as the Briton hit a forehand wide that abruptly ended a seven-shot rally and, no doubt, left him scratching his head. Tsitsipas promptly closed out the 34-minute first set with his second ace smack on the line to win 6-2.

As the second set began, Tsitsipas continued to pressure Evans. Immediately, he gained two break points against the scrappy, 29-year-old Birmingham native, who struggled to find any kind of advantage against his younger opponent. After 14 minutes and four break-points saved, Evans finally gained an important hold of serve for a 1-0 lead. However, Tsitsipas broke Evans when Evans’s forehand flew long on his next service game and followed it with an easy hold for a 3-1 lead.

Later, Tsitsipas held at 5-3 with a brilliantly executed, cross-court backhand volley winner. Everything, it seemed, was going right for the 21-year-old Greek hero. He set up match point with an unrelenting forehand winner that capped a 14-shot rally. Then, after Evans saved one match point with an overhead smash, Tsitsipas won it when Evans hit a long return that ended the one hour and 21 minute battle with Tsitsipas raising his arms in celebration.

Tsitsipas outpointed Evans 63-49 by winning 76 percent of his service points, hitting 21 winners, and limiting Evans to just 10 return points. He did not face any break points on his serve.

Afterward, in his on-court interview, Tsitsipas expressed his satisfaction in playing solidly throughout the entire match. “I didn’t have any massive breakdowns and just played a quality of tennis which I enjoyed. …

“I am really impressed by the quality of my game today and I really hope to bring the same and possibly even better in the next round.”

During his press conference, Tsitsipas said: “I played really well, both my forehand and backhand side. Obviously, I was dominating a lot from my forehand side. I was constructing and building the point from the forehand side. It helped tremendously (that I got) the lead and the upper hand, kind of being more in charge. I think that was something that helped me get those break points when I had to. … 

“My service games were close to excellent. I was just playing with a clear head and not think too much, staying in the moment, trying to process of what potentially (Evans is) going to use on the court. Yeah, I didn’t think it was a threat. I had time, I had space. It was just a matter of time for me to take the lead and get up in the score.”

Peers/Venus reach first final as team

The 38th-ranked team of John Peers from Australia and Michael Venus of New Zealand reached their first doubles final as a team with a 7-6 (2), 6-2 win over No. 31 Jurgen Melzer of Australia and Edouard Roger-Vasselin from France. It was the fifth win this year for Peers and Venus, who were not broken in the match and have yet to lose a set in Dubai. They will face No. 4 seeds Raven Klaasen of South Africa and Oliver Marach of Austria, who defeated sixth-ranked qualifiers Henri Kontinen from Finland and JanLennard Struff from Germany, 6-3, 6-2, in 61 minutes.

By the numbers

• Novak Djokovic came into his match against Gaël Monfils with a 72-2 record against French opponents. His only two losses were against Jo-Wilfried Tonga at the 2014 Rogers Cup in Toronto and to Benoit Paire at the 2018 Miami Open.

• Among active players, Novak Djokovic has the second-longest consecutive hardcourt match winning streak with 35 wins, which began at the 2010 Davis Cup Finals and continued to the 2011 Western & Southern Open. First is Roger Federer with 56, from 2005 Rotterdam to 2006 Dubai.

Saturday’s order of play

• Doubles final, John Peers/Michael Venus vs. No. 4 Raven Klaasen/Oliver Marach, 5 p.m. (1 p.m. GMT)

• Singles final, No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs, No. 2 Stefanos Tsitsipas, not before 7 p.m. (3 p.m. GMT)