Novak Djokovic survives huge scare to end losing streak in three-hour Serbia Open thriller

Novak Djokovic reacts to his media coverage in February

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Novak Djokovic took advantage of nerves from his opponent to survive an early scare and produce a comeback victory in front of an adoring crowd at the Serbia Open. Laslo Djere threatened to become only the fourth Serbian ever to beat him and the first in more than a decade, but Djokovic’s experience shone through as he limped to a first win since mid-February.

The 20-time Grand Slam champion has been forced to miss a number of tournaments so far this year as countries close their borders to unvaccinated arrivals. As a result, he came into this match with only four previous outings under his belt in 2022.

It looked for a while as though it would not take long for the out-of-practice Djokovic to be swept aside by his unseeded opponent, who produced some excellent tennis to take advantage of the world number one’s rustiness and take the first set in double-quick time – much to the chagrin of the near-capacity crowd in Belgrade.

But the nerves later set in for Djere, who began to tighten up and make simple mistakes whenever he had the chance to really take hold of the tie. That, combined with improvement from Djokovic who loosened up the more the match went on, saw the match levelled after a lengthy second set before the 34-year-old eventually pressed home his advantage.

Djere had taken inspiration from Alejandro Davidovich Fokina as he raced to take the first set in little more than half an hour. The Spaniard had broken Djokovic’s serve a remarkable nine times on the way to victory at the Monte-Carlo Masters last week, and it wasn’t long before history was repeating itself.

The 26-year-old did it twice in that first set, racing to a 5-2 lead before Djokovic managed to put up any form of real opposition. The tennis icon put up some resistance to survive two set points and even had the chance to take the game himself, but he was laboured in his movement and the lack of match practice shone through.

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As was mentioned in television commentary, the Djokovic is stuck in something of a catch 22. He need to be playing matches regularly if he is to brush away the cobwebs and get back to his best, but in order to play more he needs to win and secure progress deeper into tournaments.

A bumper crowd in Belgrade was certainly willing for that to happen. Djere was in the unfortunate position of also playing in front of his own fans, but his points earned only a smattering of polite applause while there were roars of approval whenever Djokovic managed to produce a shot worthy of his reputation and ability.

His level certainly raised during the second set, as Djokovic began to find more rhythm in his play and seemed more comfortable in his movement and technique. He won his first two service games with relatively little difficulty, though he could not take advantage with any breaks as each player held their own. That almost changed at 2-2, but Djere was made to pay for two very sloppy forehands and Djokovic roared with delight after a tricky but eventually successful hold.

The third break of the match did come the next time the world number one was serving, as his opponent took control of the set as well as the tie. However, he would break back for the first time in the match as he clawed his way back and made the most of a couple of errors from Djere to level the scores again.

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Djokovic survived losing the first two points of his next service game by keeping things simple and making the most of some perfectly-placed serves to keep himself in the fight. He could not build on a run of fine shots as he surrendered Djere’s fifth service game of the set rather meekly. Both players then held to make it 6-6 and force an all-important tie-break, though Djokovic will have been frustrated at having spurned three set points. In the end he needed six of them to level the scores and punish Djere for allowing his nerves to affect his play.

From there the 34-year-old was the favourite to press home his advantage and go on to win the match, but it was clear that Djere would not be making it easy for him. In fact, it was the world number 50 who led throughout most of the deciding set as he continued to make life difficult for Djokovic.

At this point both players were labouring, having clearly given their all on what was proving to be a slow and cumbersome clay playing surface. As the match ticked over the three-hour mark, they were locked at 5-5 in the final set with both players producing some incredible shots and comical errors in equal measure.

Predictably, the match was decided by another tie-break, piling pressure on Djere who had won only one of eight he had taken part in this year prior to this match. He looked likely to improve that sorry statistic at one point, but drove a simple forehand into the net whe he had the chance to take control and paid the price as Djokovic sealed the victory.

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