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Djokovic thanks Dubai fans after winning his first match since Australian saga

Djokovic beat Italian wildcard Lorenzo Musetti 6-3 6-3 in Dubai on Monday night

Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates after winning the ATP Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships match against Lorenzo Musetti of Italy. (AFP)
Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates after winning the ATP Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships match against Lorenzo Musetti of Italy. (AFP)

Rituraj Borkakoty

Published: Mon 21 Feb 2022, 11:49 PM

Last updated: Tue 22 Feb 2022, 12:13 AM

Two ageing champions, one defying a humongous mental scar and the other a creaking body, enthralled a near-capacity crowd to kick-start the 30th anniversary celebrations of the ATP Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on an unforgettable Monday evening.

Novak Djokovic, 34, was greeted with loud cheers from the Dubai crowd as he stepped on the court for his first competitive match since the deportation from Australia over his coronavirus vaccination status.

Showing no ill effects of the ordeal Down Under where he even spent a few nights in a detention centre, Djokovic dazzled under the floodlights in Dubai, putting Italian wildcard Lorenzo Musetti to the sword with a thumping 6-3 6-3 win.

“I could not have asked for a better reception. You know I haven’t played for two months, so I could not have picked a better place to kick-start the season,” Djokovic told the roaring crowd during the on-court interview after winning his first match of the season.

“It’s the best possible experience tonight, thank you very much for the support and the way you welcomed me tonight.”

The 20-time Major winner stormed into the next round in Dubai just over an hour after Andy Murray, one of his greatest rivals who had beaten him in two Grand Slam finals, produced a rip-roaring fightback.

Knackered by two career-threatening hip surgeries, Murray is now a pale shadow of the player that won three Grand Slam singles titles and deified the might of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Djokovic to become the only man in history to win two Olympic gold medals.

But on Monday, Murray, 34, fought back from a set down against Christopher O’Connell, the 27-year-old Australian qualifier, to clinch a gruelling three-set battle 6-7 (4/7) 6-3 7-5.

From smashing his racquet in a frustrating first set littered with unforced errors to conjuring some majestic points in the second and third, the British icon sent the Centre Court crowd on an exhilarating emotional roller coaster.

The demons were back to haunt him in the ninth game of the decider. But he exorcised those demons with an unflinching spirit, saving four break points, the second of which with a jaw-dropping drop shot, to keep himself alive in the slugfest.

Murray then brought the crowd to its feet in the 12th game by breaking the Australian’s spirit and serve with some scorching returns, clinching the match in two hours and 51 minutes.

“I was very frustrated early on in the match. I didn’t quite find my game and he was dictating a lot of rallies. But I managed to serve a little bit better as the match went on which helped me a lot,” Murray, who has entered the Dubai tournament on a wildcard, told the TV presenter during the post-match on-court interview.

A return to Grand Slam-winning form may seem impossible for the 2017 Dubai champion, but Murray says he will continue to play tennis as long as he can.

“I have spoken to a lot of ex-players. A lot of them asked me to keep playing. Some of them maybe regret stopping it a little bit too soon. So, yeah, I feel I can still compete at the highest level. It’s not easy, obviously, physically it’s very challenging for me. But winning matches like these is obviously very satisfying,” said Murray after his 699th career win.

Jaziri bows out

Crowd favourite Malek Jaziri of Tunisia bowed out of the championships after an engrossing three-set battle against Filip Krajinovic of Serbia.

Wild card Jaziri, 38, rolled back the years with some fantastic shot-making from the baseline to win a close first set before the Serb fought back for a 6-7 (4-7) 6-2 6-4 victory in two hours and 18 minutes on the Centre Court.

“We all know that Malek is an amazing player. He was a top 40 player. I had practiced with him so many times, he knows these conditions so well,” the 29-year-old Krajinovic said of Jaziri who reached the Dubai semifinals in 2018.

Earlier, Czech qualifier Jiri Vesely pulled off the first big upset of the championships with a straight set victory over former US Open champion Marin Cilic of Croatia.

The 28-year-old Vesely beat Cilic 6-4 7-6 (7-3) in the first round clash.

Having come through the qualifying stages with two back-to-back three set matches, Vesely dominated the 2014 US Open champion as he won the first set with a single break of serve.

Cilic fought back in the second set when Vesely served for the match at 5-4, breaking the Czech before forcing a tie-break.

But Vesely, the world number 123, held his nerve in the tie-break to complete a well-deserved victory against the world number 24.



Singles first round

(1) Novak Djokovic (SRB) beat (WC) Lorenzo Musetti (ITA) 6-3 6-3

(WC) Andy Murray (GRB) beat (Q) Christopher O’Connell (AUS) 6-7 (4/7) 6-3 7-5

(Q) Jiri Vesely (CZE) beat Marin Cilic (CRO) 6-4 7-6 (7/3)

Filip Krajinovic (SRB) beat (WC) Malek Jaziri (TUN) 6-7 (4-7) 6-2 6-4

(Q) Taro Daniel (JPN) beat David Goffin (BEL) 6-3 7-6 (7-5)

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