Novak Djokovic made to work in Monte Carlo win as Russell watches on

Novak Djokovic was made to work in his first match since February. The top seed battled past surprise qualifier Ivan Gakhov 7-6(5) 6-2 in an hour and 47 minutes. F1 star George Russell watched on from the stands as Djokovic earned his first victory in Monte Carlo since 2021.

Djokovic was playing his first match in over a month after he could not play in Indian Wells and Miami because of his unvaccinated status. The top seed was coming up against an unknown opponent in world No 198 Ivan Gakhov, who only made it into the qualifying event in Monte Carlo following four withdrawals on Friday.

The 26-year-old had already expressed his excitement to face the man he dubbed the GOAT, telling the ATP: “No matter points, money, the best reward is to play the greatest of all time tomorrow. That’s the best I could ask for.”

Gakhov also vowed to face Djokovic “like it’s just another match” and stuck to his word as he threatened the Serb early on, with the 35-year-old forced to save two break points at 2-2. After blowing two break points of his own, Djokovic was then broken by the world No 198 to trail 3-4.

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The two-time former champion in Monte Carlo broke straight back and the first set went to a tiebreak, with little separating the top seed from the qualifier. The pair traded mini-breaks before Djokovic took the lead again and was able to close out a tight opener 7-6(5) in an hour and nine minutes.

Both men also started strong in set number two, holding with relative ease in the first four games despite some frustration from Djokovic. But the double faults started to creep into Gakhov’s game and he was broken for the second time as the top seed took a 3-2 lead.

The 22-time Grand Slam champion started to run away with the match, breaking Gakhov for a second time to serve for the match at 5-2. Djokovic was forced to save a break point but managed to close out a straight-set victory after being challenged in the opening set, denying the 26-year-old his second tour-level victory.

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It marks Djokovic’s first match win in Monte Carlo since 2021, after he lost his opening match to Alejandro Davidovich Fokina 12 months ago. The world No 1 defeated Jannik Sinner two years ago but was upset by British No 2 Dan Evans in the third round.

He will now face either 16th seed Lorenzo Musetti or another qualifier in Luca Nardi, with the pair doing battle on Wednesday. Djokovic is bidding to have a deep run in Monte Carlo this year, last lifting the title in 2015 and winning just his second match at the tournament since 2019.

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