Djokovic Begins Quest For Sixth Paris Masters Title With Tight Win

Novak Djokovic (photo: Eva Matan)

PARIS/WASHINGTON, November 2, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Five-time Rolex Paris Masters champion Novak Djokovic returned to the ATP Tour at Bercy’s Accor Arena Tuesday evening to play his first match since losing to Daniil Medvedev in the US Open final in mid September.

The World No. 1 and top seed from Serbia took on No. 40 Marton Fucsovics of Hungary in a featured second-round tussle on Court Central. The two met in the Wimbledon quarterfinals this year with Djokovic prevailing 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 en route to winning his 20th Grand Slam singles title.

Knowing that a sixth Paris crown would clinch the year-end FedEx ATP No. 1 ranking for Djokovic for the seventh time, which would break the tie he shares with Hall of Famer Pete Sampras, there’s still much for the Serbian to be playing for this week.

“I think winning 27 of 28 matches at the Slam level is pretty impressive,” Hall of Famer and Tennis Channel analyst Jim Courier said before the match. “He’s had time to bounce back, time with his family. He didn’t take that grueling trip back across the [Atlantic] ocean to Indian Wells. He should be well rested. He’s back in a happy hunting grounds for him this season, where he won Roland Garros. He’s back in Paris.”

In exactly two hours, Djokovic won 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 to move into Thursday’s third round against either No. 15 seed Gaël Monfils or Adrian Mannarino, both from France. Djokovic showed a good attitude throughout the match, got himself fired up as needed, worked out of trouble a few times, and finished with 25 winners to 23 unforced errors He won 77 percent (41 of 53) of his first-serve points and outpointed Fucsovics 94-74.

Djokovic played a good opening set against his Hungarian opponent, who came in with a 2-19 win-loss record against Top-10 opponents. He broke Fucsovics twice, in the second and eighth games, and won the 38-minute first set 6-2. The Serbian, who hit two aces and eight winners overall in the opening set, outpointed Fucsovics 34-23.

As the second set opened, a reminder that Djokovic was 32-1 after winning the first set this season – his only blemish being the Olympics semifinal loss to Alexander Zverev – seemed appropriate. However, Fucsovics broke Djokovic early to go ahead 2-1 and consolidated the break for a 3-1 advantage. Then, the 23-time major champion played from behind through the remainder of the set and Fucsovics worked hard to maintain the advantage with the thought of taking the match to a decider. He closed out the 39-minute middle set with a love hold to win 6-4 – finishing the set with seven aces and 13 winners – and, surprisingly, the second-round match was level at a set apiece after an hour and 17 minutes.

Once the deciding third set unfolded, Djokovic held for 2-1 with a satisfying forehand passing shot that woke up the crowd, then broke Fucsovics to take a 3-1 lead. However, Fucsovics got the break back in the very next game. Soon, Djokovic broke for a second time in the set to gain a 4-2 advantage and consolidated it to move to within a game of winning. Finally, a game later after he was unable to close it out on Fucsovic’s serve and squandered a match point at 5-2 30-40, Djokovic concluded his 45th victory of the season on his own serve. His three-shot forehand winner gave him game, set and match.

“It was great to be back on the court after almost two months without competition,” Djokovic said, quoted by the ATP website. “I did not expect anything but I knew this was not going to be an easy match. Marton is a very talented player, he has a lot of quality. It was a great fight. I couldn’t break his serve, he was playing with a lot of precision and we pushed each other to the limit. It was a great opening match for me. I am very pleased.” 

Auger-Aliassime keeps Turin hopes alive with win

No. 9 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime kept his Nitto ATP Finals hopes alive with a comeback 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory over 66th-ranked qualifier Gianluca Mager of Italy. The Canadian No. 1 needed five match points and one hour and 57 minutes to advance to the second round against 58th-ranked lucky loser Dominik Koepfer of Germany, who took saved seven match points to beat Andy Murray Monday night.

It was the 36th victory of the season for the 21-year-old Auger-Aliassime, who currently is in 12th place – 11th in the absence of Rafael Nadal – in the FedEx ATP Race To Turin standings with 2,465 points. He’s reached two finals this year – at the Murray River Road in Melbourne and at Stuttgart and was a semifinalist at the US Open. Nothing seems out of reach for Auger-Aliassime, but he must win the Rolex Paris Masters to assume himself of a berth in the final eight who go to Turin later this month for the year-end championships. Auger-Aliassime is in contention with Casper Ruud, Jannik Sinner, Hubert Hurkacz and Cameron Norrie for the final two berths in the eight-player field.

Against Mager in the opening match on Court Central, Auger-Aliassime hit 13 aces and 26 winners to 17 unforced errors and converted three of five break points against Mager. He outpointed his opponent 84-72.

“It feels good [to win],” Auger-Aliassime said during a TV interview with Tennis Channel. “It surprised me with how well he was playing. At the same time, it’s expected. Everyone in the draw is playing well. He came through qualies with some good wins. He served well and deserved to win the first set after the way he played. I played a poor game at 4-all. It was costly enough to lose that set. Then, I recovered in the second and, you know, at the end of the day tennis is how you finish, right? It’s not about how you start.”

Trio of Americans all win on Court 2

Whether by plan or by quirk, the first three matches on intimate Court 2 Tuesday afternoon all featured players from the United States: Tommy Paul, Reilly Opelka and Taylor Fritz. After the last ball was struck by Fritz, the three Americans all had won their first-round matches to move on to the second round.

First, the 53rd-ranked Paul advanced with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over No. 50 Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany to set up a second-round match against No. 7 seed Hubert Hurkacz of Poland. Paul hit six aces and broke Strufff three times during the one-hour and 15-minute match.

Next, No. 25 Opelka closed out his 6-3, 7-6 (4) victory over No. 42 Filip Krajinovic of Serbia with a demonstrative forehand winner to advance to the second round against No. 10 seed Cameron Norrie of Great Britain. Opelka finished with 19 aces, won 85 percent of his first-serve points (28 of 33) and did not face any break points on his serve.

Finally, Fritz, a finalist two days ago at the St. Petersburg Open, won his seventh match this season after dropping the opening set. The 26th-ranked American defeated No. 27 Lorenzo Sonego of Italy, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3. He outpointed his opponent 85-67. The victory was the 31st of the season for Fritz, who advanced to the second round against No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev of Russia.

Alcaraz sets up showdown with Sinner

In his Paris Masters debut, 18-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz garnered his first Masters 1000 victory on a hard court with his 6-7 (4), 7-6 (2), 7-5 victory over crowd favorite Pierre-Hugues Herbert of France on Court Central Tuesday afternoon.

The 35th-ranked Alcarez’s 26th ATP Tour-level victory advanced him to a Wednesday showdown with World No. 9 and No. 8 seed Jannik Sinner of Italy, winner of 45 matches and four titles this season. It will be their first ATP Tour meeting between the two #NextGenATP stars. Alcaraz beat Sinner in an ATP Challenger Tour tournament in Alicante, Spain, in April 2019, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

While the 99th-ranked Herbert garnered 43 winners and captured 41 of 58 net points, Alcaraz was match tough when it counted. The youngest player in the Paris Masters field overcame 20 unforced errors by hitting 18 winners and converted three break points in 11 opportunities. However, Herbert suffered back-to-back double faults to end the match. Alcaraz outpointed Herbert 122-114.

“I’m really happy to get the win,” Alcaraz said during a post-match TV interview. “I had to stay focused after losing the first set so close. It wasn’t easy, but I stayed focused.”

After reaching the Vienna semifinals last weekend, Alcaraz has now won four of his last five matches – all indoors. “I’m feeling comfortable playing on indoor courts. I’m looking forward to ending the year strong,” he said.

Ruud scores another big win

No. 6 seed Casper Ruud of Norway and No. 36 Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan were the last match to take Court Central Tuesday night and didn’t finish until 1 a.m. Wednesday. However, for the fans who remained after Novak Djokovic’s win over Marton Fucsovics in Accor Arena, they were entertained by Bublik, who pulled out his “greatest hits” – a tweener and an underarm serve – and kept things loose and happy-go-lucky. However, Ruud stuck to serious strokes and won nine consecutive games en route to a fairly straightforward 6-4, 6-0 victory in an hour and 17 minutes.

Ruud hit 15 winners and committed just four unforced errors, while Bublik racked up 21 winners but made 31 unforced miscues The Norwegian was ahead on points 71-49 by the end of the second-round match. Ruud will get Wednesday off and await the winner between No. 11 seed Diego Schwartzman of Argentina and 57th-ranked qualifier Marcos Giron of the United States.

Benoit Paire: ‘This is why I play’

France’s Benoit Paire had just come off court after losing his first-round match to No. 12 seed Pablo Carreño Busta, 6-3, 6-4, late Monday evening. The loss dropped the French No. 3’s 2021 season win-loss record to 14-31 and extended his losing streak to four straight matches. The Avignon native’s last win was in the first round at Bulgaria against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in late September. Paire reached three quarterfinals this season, including at the Western & Southern Open Masters 1000 in Mason, Ohio.

It was after midnight in Paris inside Accor Arena as the 47th-ranked Paire sat for what’s likely his last post-match press conference of the season. He answered questions in French, which later were translated into English.

Paire was asked by a reporter how it felt to have such a loss as Monday’s against Carreño Busta and if he was happy to play in front of a crowd that cheers for him. Never one to spare any emotion, Paire opened up and spilled his feelings.

“Sadness. I was sad not to give it my all in front of this crowd,” Paire lamented. “They support me a lot. It’s heartwarming to see such a cheering crowd. This is why I play. They support me from the beginning to the end. I miss that a lot.

“Why do I feel sad? Well, I do not have the right level to give them what they are expecting from me. The older I get, the more stressed I am. I’m very happy to see the public, and I’m really frustrated not to give it my all. …

“The season was tough. All these months were tough. But it will stay a wonderful memory, because the crowd was wonderful, but I was disappointed not to give them what they expected from me.”

Looking back on his disappointing year, Paire said he looks forward to starting with a clean slate with a new season in 2022. He will go home to Geneva, Switzerland, where he resides, to think and “to try to change the momentum” of a season that didn’t go quite as he had hoped.

“I did a quarterfinals in Cincinnati. That shows me that I can find my game play, and I will do so next year,” Paire said.

“Today, I’m disappointed, because I would have liked to showcase my skills in a better way. And this is not what I did.”

Then, on a separate matter, Paire, who is vaccinated against COVID-19, was asked about participating in next year’s Australian Open.

“Those that are not vaccinated, I don’t care about them. If they don’t play, all the better for me,” he said. “I don’t care about the other players. I’m motivated to have a great season next year. If there are some people who are reluctant to get vaccinated, then they should stay in Europe. It’s not my problem. You have to be vaccinated to go to Australia. I am vaccinated and I’m looking forward to playing there.”

Tuesday’s Rolex Paris Masters results

Wednesday’s Rolex Paris Masters order of play

Around the Accor Arena

• No 11 seed Diego Schwartzman of Argentina needed nearly three hours (2:58) and three sets to beat No. 73 John Millman of Australia, 7-6 (2), 5-7, 6-2, on Court 1. He set up match point No. 3 with a beautiful lob winner, then won when Millman hit his third double fault. The final game lasted 20 points and included seven deuce points. Schwartzman finished with 37 winners that overcame his 52 unforced errors. He outpointed Millman 119-107 to advance against 57th-ranked qualifier Marcos Giron of the United States. Giron beat No. 41 Frances Tiafoe, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-3, in an all-American battle on Court 1.

• No. 14 seed Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain was upset in the first round by No. 55 James Duckworth of Australia, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (4). Duckworth finished with 12 aces and was outpointed by Bautista Agut 111-108. Next, Duckworth will play 67th-ranked Italian lucky loser Lorenzo Musetti.

• No. 15 seed Gaël Monfils of France rallied for a 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory over No. 69 Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia to wrap up the day session. MGMT’s “Electric Feel” permeated throughout Accor Arena in celebration of the Frenchman’s triumph, the only one of three involving French players on Court Central Tuesday. Monfils wrapped up the two-hour and nine-minute win with a blistering forehand winner, his 53rd winner of the match and 25th from his forehand side. He also added 14 aces and outpointed Kecmanovic 97-89. Next, Monfils will go up against fellow countryman No. 59 Adrian Mannarino in the second round.

• No. 28 Marin Cilic of Croatia, who is fresh off winning his second St. Petersburg Open title on Sunday, advanced to the second round after beating No. 45 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain, 6-3, 6-4, on Court 1. Cilic, who finished with 22 winners to 24 unforced errors, hit a fifth-shot forehand winner on match point to put away the victory and move on to face No. 39 Sebastian Korda of the United States in the second round.

• No. 31 Karen Khachanov of Russia fired his seventh ace on match point to defeat No. 97 Mikael Ymer of Sweden, 6-4, 7-5, on Court 1. Khachanov, the 2018 champion, won 81 percent (38 of 47) of his first-serve points and converted three of 13 break points to advance against No. 16 seed Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, who hit 25 winners en route to beating 74th-ranked French wild card Richard Gasquet, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2, on Court Central.  It was Dimitrov’s fourth straight win over Gasquet and sixth three-set win this season in eight tries.

• No. 71 Alexei Popyrin of Australia became the third lucky loser to reach the second round following his 6-0, 6-3 victory over fellow Aussie Alex de Minaur, ranked 32nd, on Court 2. Popyrin replaced Lloyd Harris of South Africa, who withdrew due to lower back pain. Next, he will play No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas.

By the numbers

Novak Djokovic is one of five players with at least four titles this year. The others: Casper Ruud 5, Alexander Zverev 5, Daniil Medvedev 4 and Jannik Sinner 4.

“Quotable …”

“I still see him as a legend of tennis. Novak is still Novak. He’s still a fantastic player. He’s won three Grand Slams [this year], he’s still the same. He only lost to the second-ranked player.”

Gaël Monfils of France on whether he viewed Novak Djokovic any differently after the World No. 1 lost the US Open title to World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev.

“The atmosphere is great. We all know the French fans are passionate about their sports. They have a Grand Slam and a Masters as well. This is one of the best venues, the best indoor stadium we have on the tour. It gets really loud and echoes pretty good. My atmosphere was great but it’s going to even be better with all of the French players lined up [to play].”

Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada on describing the atmosphere at the Paris Masters.

“It is just about spending time on court, finding that match play intensity and playing more points. The more matches I play, I think I am going to get better. I know myself well, I was in this situation before, quite a lot of times, so hopefully experience can play a role in doing the job well.”

Novak Djokovic of Serbia following his first match back on tour after a nearly-two month absence since losing the US Open final in September.