DUBAI: World No.1 Novak Djokovic was forced to dig deep to ensure his progression in the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
The evergreen Serbian belatedly edged out qualifier Tomas Machac in a hard-fought 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (1) opening round victory at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium.
Chasing a sixth Dubai title, Djokovic, the event’s top seed and a five-time champion, appeared on course for a routine win after a straight-forward opening set.
Machac, however, stirred the prospect of an unlikely upset with a relentless series of scintillating backhand winners that left Djokovic staring at the sky in bewilderment as the world No. 130 clinched the second set to level the match.
With the tie delicately poised at 1-1 in the third and final set, Machac appeared to injure his right wrist during an innocuous cross-court forehand. After a brief physio break, Djokovic seized control and steamrolled into a 4-1 lead.
Determined and defiant, Machac refused to surrender and, after breaking the Djokovic serve again, the Czech underdog levelled things up at 4-4.
With both players displaying nerves of steel to force a tiebreak, Djokovic belatedly stamped his authority on proceedings to triumph in the match decider.
Djokovic said: “It was a fantastic atmosphere out there; Dubai is one of my favourite tournaments and cities to play tennis.
“Tomas didn’t play like 130 in the world today. He played great tennis, and he was giving me all kinds of trouble. But I guess I found another gear when it mattered.
“I haven’t played much tennis coming into Dubai, so I’m hoping I can pick up my level as the tournament progresses,” the 22-time Grand Slam winner added.
Djokovic was recognized after the match for setting another benchmark in his unparalleled career. Flanked by Salah Tahlak, the joint chief operating officer of Dubai Duty Free and tournament director of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, Djovokic received rapturous applause from the capacity crowd for reaching 378 cumulative weeks as world No. 1 during his two-decade career – a new record in the men’s and women’s game.
The Serbian, who faces France’s Tallon Griekspoor in the last 16, said: “It’s very special. I’m flattered and thrilled to be amongst the biggest names in this sport’s history.
“As a young boy growing up in Serbia, I dreamt of two things: Winning Wimbledon and reaching number one. I am blessed to have achieved my childhood dreams, several times. I am extremely grateful I can still play at this level after so many years,” he added.
Third seed Daniil Medvedev will join Djokovic in the second round after a comfortable 6-4, 6-2 win against Italy’s Matteo Arnaldi. The world No. 7 will play Alexander Bublik in the second round after the Kazakhstan national progressed with a 6-1, 1-0 victory over Alexandar Lazarov, with the Bulgarian withdrawing from the match, and tournament, with an injury.
Medvedev said: “I feel great. Even today I felt like I was far from my best tennis, but I managed to close it out in two sets, that always helps.
“I’m just really happy to be on a streak right now. Streaks always finish, but I will try to extend mine as long as I can. I’m feeling great and hopefully I can do some good things here in Dubai,” he added.