Toronto Masters 2018: Efficient four-time champ Novak Djokovic beats rain to make Round 3

Novak Djokovic beats Canadian Peter Polansky at Rogers Cup in Toronto on Wednesday

Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic Photo: Marianne Bevis

The Rogers Cup in Toronto had a few early disappointments after the promise of appearances by 26 of the top 27 men in the world.

That ‘one’ missing long before the draw was world No2 Roger Federer, whose 37th birthday fell during the tournament. So Toronto had to cancel the usual birthday celebrations.

Then No15 seed Roberto Bautista Agut withdrew, followed by the injury-blighted winner of the 2017 #NextGen Finals, Hyeon Chung.

As the second round got under way, there were delays—not for the first time—as rain storms passed over Toronto, but also news of the withdrawal of No3 seed Juan Martin del Potro with wrist problems.

But while two of the sport’s more popular players, No16 seed Nick Kyrgios and No10 seed David Goffin, made their exits in the first round, it was at the expense of two men who will ensure the crowds still pour in.

Stan Wawrinka, three times a Major champion but ranked 195 as he continues to work back from double knee surgery, had won just six matches this year, but he gutsed out a tough opening win, 1-6, 7-5, 7-5, over Kyrgios. However, the spectre of three-time champion Rafael Nadal looms if Wawrinka wins his next match: wild cards rarely get it easy.

Goffin lost out to one of a clutch of Canadians in the draw, and one who has enjoyed top-three ranking, a Major final, but repeated injury problems: Milos Raonic. Currently at 29 after missing key stops in the clay season, Raonic began the long haul back with a good grass swing, and in Toronto, he made light work Goffin, 6-3, 6-4.

But the unseeded Raonic has as tough a road as Wawrinka: After young Frances Tiafoe, the Delray Beach champion, it will be Grigor Dimitrov. The No5 seeded Bulgarian, with just nine match-wins to his name since Rotterdam in February, won a confidence-boosting late-night thriller over Fernando Verdasco in a final-set tie-break.

A couple of single-handed backhands in the shape of charismatic #NextGen top-30 teenagers, Canadian Denis Shapovalov and Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, got plenty of cheers with their straight-sets, first-round wins. Both also, it so happens, set showy matches with, respectively, the in-form No14 seed Fabio Fognini and No7 seed Dominic Thiem.

And as if one teenage Canadian in the second round was not enough for the Toronto faithful, exciting youngster Felix Auger-Aliassime lit up the centre court just as Shapovalov had done two years ago. Back then, in his debut at the Rogers Cup, the now No26 in the world beat the No19 seed Kyrgios. This year, in his debut, Auger-Aliassime beat world No18 Lucas Pouille, to join a special club. He, Shapovalov, Borna Coric and defending champion Alexander Zverev are the only players to beat a top-20 player before their 18th birthday.

And thereby hangs a tale. Federer may have passed up the chance for a birthday cake, but Auger-Aliassime did not. The first player born this millennium to win a main-tour match shares the same birthday as the mighty Swiss—just 19 years later.

If he goes on to beat Daniil Medvedev, he could become the youngest player to win two matches at the Rogers Cup since Mats Wilander in 1982.

But that would be later—should the returning rain permit. Indeed only one match was finished in Toronto on Wednesday before the already-delayed schedule was brought to a halt again. But that match served to reinforce the status of the four-time former Rogers Cup champion and No9 seed, Novak Djokovic.

The owner of 69 titles and more than 800 match-wins was absent for the entire second half of last year as he wrestled with injury in the run-up to Wimbledon.

Djokovic attempted to return in Australia but eventually succumbed to elbow surgery, and took time to regain his match-fitness and confidence. But all began to come together again during the clay swing when, reunited with his old coaching team, he made the semis at the Rome Masters and the quarters at Roland Garros—though he was livid with himself for not performing better.

Come the grass, and the sharpness, focus and determination were all in place, and a final run at Queen’s was followed by the Wimbledon title—his first Major since completing the Grand Slam at Roland Garros in 2016.

He got something of a break in his Toronto opener, which was scheduled to be against Chung, who beat Djokovic in the fourth round in Australia. Instead, the Serb played lucky loser Mirza Basic, ranked 84: a baptism of fire in the Bosnian’s first Rogers Cup main draw.

To his credit, Basic conceded just the one break in the first set, and then exchanged breaks twice with Djokovic in the second set to force a tie-break. The former champion, though, sealed the win, 6-3, 7-6(3).

His second match drew Canadian wild card, Peter Polansky, ranked 121 and with just two main-tour wins in a season dominated by Challengers and qualifying rounds. They had actually met once before, almost a decade ago, in the Montreal iteration of the tournament. Djokovic won, but Polansky took him to a tie-break in the second set.

The Canadian soon gave Djokovic the perfect rhythm and pace to consolidate his remorseless precision to and from the baseline corners. Djokovic’s fine serving also made life difficult for Polansky—he dropped only six points on his 36 first serves in the match—and some well-time lobs exposed the weakness of the Canadian overhead.

It took a break in each set to do the business, and Djokovic headed, barely breaking out of third gear, into the third round, 6-3, 6-4.

He afterwards summed up his performance well to ATPWorldTour.com:

“I thought I served well in the moments when I really needed it… I thought I found pretty good accuracy and angles with the first serve, and also my second serve worked pretty well. Overall my game was so-and-so. In the moments when I probably needed to step it up, I did.”

He next plays Thiem or Tsitsipas. He has beaten the former in all three of their previous hard-court meetings, but it would be a first encounter with the teenage Greek, in what could be a fascinating encounter. Tsitsipas rose to 27 this week from 91 at the start of the year, and made the final in Barcelona plus the fourth round at Wimbledon and the semis in Washington last week.

He should therefore test Djokovic more rigorously than either of his matches thus far—but first the youngster has to master fellow single-hander Thiem.

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