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Novak Djokovic Wins Monte-Carlo Masters Comeback Match

” I was fortunate to stay mentally composed last few points of the tiebreak and in second set I raised the level and just glad I overcome challenge today.” Photo credit: Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters

The crocodile on his shirt was swimming in sweat.

Eyes riveted on the spinning yellow ball, Novak Djokovic was too focused on the fight to sweat the stress.

Playing his first match since March 3rd, Djokovic shook off the rust and a resilient Ivan Gakhov 7-6(5), 6-2 to triumph through a tricky Monte-Carlo opener.

Ten-time Australian Open champion Djokovic improved to 16-1 on the season as he launches his quest for a record-extending 39th Masters 1000 crown—and his bid to become the oldest champion in Monte-Carlo history.

Credit 198th-ranked qualifier Gakhov, who scored his first career Tour-level main-draw win yesterday, with standing toe-to-toe with Djokovic for a set-and-a-half before the 35-year-old Serbian superstar ascended to a level the Masters debutant could not match.

“I never saw him play before today to be honest. I had a look at some of the vide of his yesterday’s first-round match and that’s all I basically got from him,” Djokovic told Tennis Channel’s Prakash Amritraj afterward. “So coming into the court I expected things to be a bit more unpredictable. It’s always tricky a little bit coming into the court not knowing the guy you’re gonna play against. It doesn’t happen very often, it’s not common.

“Plus, it was quite windy on the court, swirling conditions. Obviously, official match and practice matches completely different. I could see that again today. In the first set I was struggling with my timing and kind of still looking for the right rhythm on the court. I was fortunate to stay mentally composed the last few points of the tiebreak. And in second set I raised the level and just glad I overcame the challenge today.”

Sporting a white Lacoste warm-up jacket emblazoned with No. 22 as a tribute to Djokovic’s 22 Grand Slam titles, the two-time Monte-Carlo champion grew stronger as the match progressed. Djokovic won 20 of 26 first-serve points and saved two of three break points as he won the final four games to wrap a one hour, 47-minute victory.

Part-time Monte-Carlo resident Djokovic regards this as his hometown tournament and he received a massive ovation from the packed crowd as he walked onto Court Rainier.

Spreading the court cleverly, Gakhov put a backhand crosscourt in the corner then laced a forehand winner down the line for another break point. Maintaining the depth of his drives, Gakhov drew the error breaking first for 4-3.

Serving to consolidate, Gakhov had Djokovic sliding behind the baseline, but faked a drop shot and pushed a forehand long to face a double break point. Gakhov hammered his two-hander crosscourt behind the two-time champion to save the first break point. On the second break point, Gakhov missed the mark with a crosscourt forehand as Djokovic broke back to even after eight games.

The world No. 1 gained the early mini break only to see Gakhov skip around his backhand and spin a forehand to level the tiebreaker at 2-all.

Sixty-seven minutes into a tight test, Gakhov narrowly missed a crosscourt forehand as Djokovic went up 5-3 then earned three set points with a forcing serve. The bearded Gakhov threw down a pair of heavy serves to erase two set points.

On his third set point, Djokovic drew an errant forehand to squeeze out a dramatic set in 70 minutes.

For a set-and-a-half, Gakhov stayed in step with the 22-time Grand Slam champion and then slipped up.

Amid the tension of a deuce game, Gakhov, who had managed the balance between aggression and percentage play wisely, missed the mark with a drive to face break point. Gakhov spit up his seventh double fault to gift-wrap the second-set break and a 3-2 lead to Djokovic.

The Wimbledon champion ran off the final four games, including saving a break point in a 10-point final game, to raise his Monte-Carlo record to 36-13.

The pair shared a nice exchange at net with Djokovic revealing afterward he thanked his opponent for wearing his branded Asics shoes.

“I asked him if the shoes served him well, he was like maybe not today, but generally yes,” Djokovic said.

Next up for Djokovic is an Italian opponent, either 16th-seeded Lorenzo Musetti, who pushed the Serbian to five sets at Roalnd Garros a few years back, or qualifier Luca Nardi.

Earlier, Andrey Rublev repelled Jaume Munar 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.

Rublev scored his 250th career Tour-level win and first clay-court victory since defeating Ricardas Berankis at the 2022 Hamburg.

The fifth-seeded Rublev awaits his next opponent. Karen Khachanov, who defeated 2022 finalist Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, 6-2, 6-2 in his opener, will play either Daniel Evans or qualifier Ilya Ivashka, with the winner taking on Rublev.

Meanwhile, Davidovich Fokina failed to defend his 600 ranking points for his run to the 2022 final and drops to No. 37 in the ATP Live Rankings. 

Italian wild card Lorenzo Sonego sent Italian fans into a frenzy fighting off French qualifier Ugo Humbert 3-6, 7-5, 7-5.

Sonego saved a match point at 4-5 in the decider and denied six of 10 break points in a three-hour victory that propels him into a second-round clash vs. Miami Open champion Daniil Medvedev.

“Honestly, it’s tough, really. For half an hour afterwards, I didn’t feel good,” Humbert said. “Then I calmed down, because it’s useless to be depressed, but I know that now I can play well on clay. Of course this is part of the game. I was not able to win the match, but that’s the way it is.”

Grigor Dimitrov drilled 10 aces and faced just two break points dispatching Australian Open quarterfinalist Ben Shelton 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.

World No. 25 Dimitrov will play hard-hitting Czech Jiri Lehecka in round two. Lehecka stopped lucky loser Emil Ruusuvuori 6-1, 7-5.