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Djokovic back with a bang!

Last updated on: February 22, 2022 18:43 IST
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IMAGE: Novak Djokovic celebrates winning his first round match against Italy's Lorenzo Musetti during day eight of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis. Photograph: Suhaib Salem/Reuters

World number one Novak Djokovic belatedly began his 2022 campaign with a convincing 6-3, 6-3 defeat of Italian teenager Lorenzo Musetti at the Dubai Championships on Monday.

 

The 34-year-old showed no sign of rust or mental baggage from the Australian Open visa saga that rocked the sports world, producing a polished display to ease into the second round, afterwards describing it as a "pleasant experience."

It was Djokovic's first match this year after his Australian Open hopes were dashed when he was deported following an 11-day saga revolving around his decision not to have a COVID-19 vaccination and a controversial exemption he had been granted to play in the event.

Two court hearings were required before Djokovic was expelled on January 16 having spent several days in a hotel, with the country's immigration minister ruling he could fuel anti-vaccine sentiment if allowed to compete.

Back on a tennis court of Dubai's Aviation Club, Djokovic showed just why he would have been favourite to win a 10th Australian Open crown and beat Rafael Nadal to a men's record 21st Grand Slam title.

IMAGE: Novak Djokovic could lose his world number one ranking this week should Russian Daniil Medvedev win the Acapulco title. Photograph: Suhaib Salem/Reuters

After being cheered on to court by the late night crowd, he moved through the gears, breaking Musetti's serve in the fourth game of a routine first set.

Djokovic, watched by his entourage including wife Jelena, got an early break in the second set with a forehand winner.

He briefly wavered when serving at 3-2 and was forced to save break points, but never looked threatened as his supporters, many with Serbian flags, cheered his winners.

Djokovic crunched a superb forehand winner in the final game and claimed victory on his first match point.

Even if he wins the Dubai title for a sixth time, he could lose his world number one ranking this week should Russian Daniil Medvedev win the Acapulco title.

But for Djokovic, enjoying an ATP record 361st week as number one, that was the last thing on his mind as he put one of the darkest episodes of his career behind him.

"I couldn't ask for a better reception. It's been a while since I played the last match and I couldn't pick a better place to kick-start the season," Djokovic, who had not played since the Davis Cup Finals in November, told fans after performing his trademark salute to all sides of the arena.

Djokovic, who last week said in a BBC he was not against vaccines but was prepared to miss major tournaments rather than have one, will have a day off before facing either Russian Karen Khachanov or Australian Alex de Minaur.

Asked by reporters later how he had been received by his fellow players, he said they had been "very friendly."

"Majority of them actually welcomed me and said it's nice to see me back on the tour," he said. "That makes me feel great. I'm very thankful for that because having the kind of an understanding at least I would say, if not support from my peers and my colleagues, is very important to me because they are the people that I get to see sometimes more than my family."

"I care greatly about the relationships that we have."

While Djokovic has had no issues being allowed to play in Dubai, he said he currently will not be able to play at Indian Wells, because of strict vaccine laws in the United States.

"As of today I'm not able to play. But let's see what happens. Maybe things change in the next few weeks."

Zverev seals win just before 5am in latest ever finish

Alexander Zverev completed victory over American Jenson Brooksby in the Abierto Mexicano tournament at 4.55 am local time on Tuesday, the latest ever finish for a professional tennis match.

After battling for three hours and 19 minutes, during which the German world number three twice came within a point of losing during a second set tiebreaker, Zverev defeated the 47th-ranked Brooksby 3-6, 7-6 (10), 6-2.

There were still appreciative tennis fans in the stands at the ATP 500 tournament which has four of the world's top five players participating this year, as the match finished even later than the 2008 Australian Open clash between Lleyton Hewitt and Marcos Baghdatis which ended at 4:34 am.

"Right now I'm happy to have won," defending champion Zverev said on court.

"I don't know how Jenson feels. Must be difficult but happy to be a part of history. It was an incredible battle."

It was not the only epic contest on a manic Monday night in Mexico.

American Stefan Kozlov was in the middle of an evening practice session with Rafael Nadal when he found out he was replacing injured Frenchman Maxime Cressy in the main draw as a lucky loser.

"I was playing a practice set with Rafa ... he breaks his string, goes to his bag. I just happen to check my phone for whatever reason," Kozlov said. "I just had an intuition and then I have 20 text messages ... they're like 'get over here'.

"I dropped all my stuff. I told Rafa, he's got a big smile on his face. He's super excited for me ... I got over here and I had about 30 minutes to get ready."

Facing former world number three Grigor Dimitrov, the 130th-ranked Kozlov suffered severe leg cramps after breaking his opponent's serve to take a 5-3 lead in the second set.

Kozlov slumped to the ground in agony and was barely able to move after returning to court as Dimitrov reeled off four successive games to force a decider.

Most people would have expected Kozlov to retire after losing the second set but the 24-year-old displayed incredible mental and physical strength to complete his biggest career win in three hours and 21 minutes.

He will next face either fellow American Denis Kudla or Nadal.

"Today I was totally expecting not to be playing," said Kozlov, adding that he would have retired if he had failed to hold his first service game in the third set against Dimitrov.

"Now I've got the biggest win of my career and I'm about to play Rafa Nadal."

Svitolina ousted; Kvitova advances in Doha

Defending champion Petra Kvitova swept past Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania in the opening round of the Qatar Open.

IMAGE: Defending champion Petra Kvitova swept past Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania in the opening round of the Qatar Open. Photograph: Petra Kvitova/Twitter

Russia's Tereza Martincova defeated Ukrainian 10th seed Elina Svitolina 6-7 (2), 7-5, 7-6 (5) in a nearly three-hour match Monday in the first round of the Qatar TotalEnergies Open in Doha.

Svitolina converted nine of 10 break-point opportunities and saved 12 of 22, but Martincova had seven aces and wound up winning nine more points in a 251-point epic.

American teen Coco Gauff, the 14th seed, beat countrywoman Shelby Rogers 6-2, 6-3. Romania's Jaqueline Cristian knocked off 11th seed Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan 6-4, 6-3, and Switzerland's Jil Teichmann beat German 13th seed Angelique Kerber 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. Other first-round winners included Latvian No. 15 seed Jelena Ostapenko and Belgian No. 16 seed Elise Mertens.

Two seeded players who opened with byes won their second-round matches Monday.

Ostapenko secured a sixth straight victory overall in the Middle East with a 6-4, 6-2 first-round win over France's Oceane Dodin while Mertens beat Jasmine Paolini 6-3, 2-6, 7-5.

Defending champion Petra Kvitova swept past Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania 6-3, 6-1 in the first round.

Estonia's Anett Kontaveit, the No. 4 seed, beat Ana Konjuh of Croatia 6-2, 6-3, and Spanish No. 5 seed Garbine Muguruza took down Sorana Cirstea of Romania 7-6 (4), 6-1. In a matchup of unseeded players, France's Caroline Garcia knocked off former world No. 1 Simona Halep of Romania 6-4, 6-3.

Sixth-seeded Sloane Stephens of the United States needed less than an hour to defeat a player half her age, prevailing 6-2, 6-2 over the Czech Republic's Brenda Fruhvirtova in the first round at Guadalajara, Mexico.

Stephens, the 2017 Wimbledon champion, is 28 years old. Fruhvirtova, who had won consecutive lower-tier pro events this event, is 14. Fruhvirtova had become the youngest winner of an ITF Tour event since 2015.

The other four seeded players in action Monday all lost. France's Harmony Tan upset second-seeded Madison Keys of the United States 6-4, 1-6, 6-1. Slovakia's Anna Karolina Schmiedlova knocked out fifth-seeded Nuria Parrizas Diaz 6-1, 6-4, and Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic topped seventh-seeded Misaki Doi of Japan 4-6, 7-5, 6-4. Russia's Anna Kalinskaya beat eighth-seeded Qinwen Zheng of China 6-3, 2-6, 6-2.

Italy's Lucia Bronzetti, China's Qiang Wang and Russia's Anastasia Potapova also advanced.

French Open finalist Pavlyuchenkova out for 10 weeks with knee injury

French Open finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has a knee injury that will rule her out of action for up to 10 weeks, she said on Tuesday.

The 30-year-old Russian reached a career-high ranking of number 11 in November after a successful 2021 season in which she reached her maiden Grand Slam final in Paris, won the Olympic mixed doubles gold medal and led Russia to the Billie Jean King Cup title.

"Unfortunately, I'm out for 10 weeks, due to my ongoing knee injury. Doing my rehab and everything I can to be back soon and as fit as ever," Pavlyuchenkova tweeted.

Pavlyuchenkova tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of this year's Australian Open and reached the third round before losing in three sets to Sorana Cirstea.

Pain in her knee forced her to miss tournaments in St. Petersburg, Dubai and Doha. She was set to compete in Monterrey, Indian Wells and Miami before the Tour's claycourt swing.

The French Open, the year's second Grand Slam, begins on May 22.

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