Tennis: Djokovic claws out win in return to Indian Wells

AFP , Sunday 10 Mar 2024

Novak Djokovic struggled to a winning comeback at the ATP-WTA Indian Wells Masters five years after his last appearance, defeating Aleksandar Vukic 6-2, 5-7, 6-3 on Saturday.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia plays a forehand against Aleksandar Vukic of Australia in their second round match during the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 09, 2024 in Indian Wells, California. AFP


World number one Djokovic, who had not played since losing an Australian Open semi-final to eventual champion Jannik Sinner in January, is chasing a sixth title at the desert venue in the season's first Masters event.

The 36-year-old Serb captured the 400th Masters-level victory of his career, joining Rafael Nadal as the only men to reach the 400 milestone at the elite level.

The 24-time Grand Slam champion has won his last 11 Masters matches, collecting titles last season in Cincinnati and Paris Bercy.

Djokovic wasn't the only top player to be tested.

Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka saved four match points on the way to her 6-7 (2/7), 6-2, 7-6 (8/6) second-round victory over 64th-ranked Peyton Stearns, and US Open champion Coco Gauff rallied in the final set to beat France's Clara Burel 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7/4).

Djokovic admitted to some nerves in his first match since Melbourne. He claimed the opening set in 35 minutes with two service breaks but had to come from a break down in the third against his 69th-ranked Australian opponent.

Vukic held for 6-5 in the second set and landed a reflex service return winner on the line to square the match at a set each.

In the third, top seed Djokovic broke for a 3-2 edge and closed out victory with a second break after just over two hours, notching his 51st win at the tournament where he first competed in 2006.

"I was a bit nervous at the beginning, you know, whether I'm going to start off well," Djokovic said. "I had not played a match in more than five weeks.

"He made me produce some really important points in games in order to prevail. "I'm glad that I was pushed, which is important."

Women's world number two Sabalenka had an even tougher time against Stearns. After saving four match points she needed four of her own and rolled an ankle along the way.

"This match definitely goes into the book of craziest and the best matches of my career," she said.

"She played incredible tennis. I kept telling myself, 'Stay there, fight for every point. You never know what's going to happen.

"This is the match for crazy comebacks - and I did it," added Sabalenka, who next faces Emma Raducanu who advanced when Dayana Yastremska retired while trailing 4-0 because of illness.

Third seeded Gauff, who turns 20 next Wednesday, trailed her 47th-ranked French opponent 4-0 and 5-2 in the deciding third set, but was able to power back and throw it into a tie-breaker.

She paved the way by breaking Burel to love as the Frenchwoman served for victory leading 5-4.

Mental fight

In the tie-breaker, Gauff advanced on her third match point as Burel swung wide.

"I'm happy with the mental fight," Gauff said. "It was not my best tennis... but it's how you show up on your worst days, not your best ones, that counts."

In other women's action, former number one Naomi Osaka continued her comeback after a maternity break with a 7-5, 6-3 victory over Liudmila Samsonova.

"I was more confident today with the set point and trusting myself and knowing that no matter what happens, go for my shots," Osaka said.

Fifth-ranked Jessica Pegula was knocked out 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 by Anna Blinkova, who took revenge for a loss to the American at the start of the month in San Diego.

Men's fourth seed Daniil Medvedev, last year's runner-up and holder of six Masters titles, cruised through his opener against Spain's Roberto Carballes Baena 6-2, 6-3.

A blinking light high up in the stadium interrupted the match late in the second set, but it wasn't enough to put Medvedev off his winning stride.

Seventh seed Holger Rune earned a free ride into the third round when former Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic of Canada pulled out of their match with an injury.

US 12th seed Taylor Fritz, the 2022 champion, dispatched Alejandro Tabilo of Chile 7-6 (7/2), 6-2 in 73 minutes, pumping out 14 aces among his 27 winners.

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