Dubai 2020: Tsitsipas ends Evans run to set final against former champ Djokovic

Top seeds Djokovic and Tsitsipas meet for fifth time, with two previous wins apiece

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic (Photo: Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships)

In the lightning pace of Dubai’s ATP500 tournament, it is essential to save energy, to try and get those quick and efficient wins. Here, the men’s tournament begins on Monday but ends on Saturday, and in the 32-man draw, there are no byes, even for the top seeds.

But No2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas arrived in Dubai the day after defending his Marseille indoor title, and was then put through his paces in a two-hour, 23-minute marathon by Jan-Lennard Struff in Thursday’s quarter-finals. He admitted:

“Yes, I did feel a bit tired when I started the match.”

However, Briton Dan Evans was surely also starting to feel the tournament in his legs. In reaching his first ATP500 semi-final, and with it a new career-high ranking inside the top 30, he had beaten both the No4 and No6 seeds, Fabio Fognini and Andrey Rublev, and twice been taken to three-sets that lasted over two and a half hours.

It was proving to be his best ever start to a season—Evans’ tally of top-20 wins was now up to five—but facing Tsitsipas was a still bigger challenge.

The 21-year-old Greek, who was runner-up to Roger Federer in Dubai last year, had enjoyed a meteoric rise during his short time on the main tour. He picked up his first title late in 2018, along with a first final run at a Masters, and rose from 91 to 15 by the end of the year. Three titles from six finals last year, plus his first Major semi-final, took him No6 in the world with his win at the ATP Finals.

Evans opened serve and held with an ace. He held comfortably for 2-1, as well, continuing where he left off against Rublev—with attack, and penetrating variety to the corners. But Tsitsipas began to show his class and quality. Like Evans, the Greek wields a single-handed backhand, and can generate just as much variety in spin and pace, angle and direction.

But with considerably more height, Tsitsipas also has power and a big serve, but what has stood out about the Greek since he began to make his surge up the ranks in 2018 has been his energetic and expressive shot-making and on-court presence.

Come the fifth game, Tsitsipas had found his range, and his backhand was opening up the court, down the line but also cross court, and one such pass on his first break point left Evans stranded at the net and 2-3 down.

Evans’ serve was not giving him many free points, but his volleying was spot one. He saved another break point at 2-4 down, but Tsitsipas was making hay against the Evans second serve, passing the Briton with winners and breaking again, 5-2. In this fast-moving contest, it had taken just 34 minutes for the Greek to seal the first set, 6-2.

Evans had not done much wrong, but Tsitsipas had made 10 winners and dropped only five points on serve. And the Briton came under immediate pressure in the first game of the second set, saving five break points and repeated deuces before finally holding after almost 13 minutes.

However, in the blink of an eye, Evans was serving again as Tsitsipas, showing no signs of fatigue but all the signs of a man full of attack, prowled the court.

Evans defended hard but was under increasing pressure from all quarters, and now it was the Greek who ghosted more often to the net, and with considerable success. Evans was simply outplayed, and the errors followed. Tsitsipas broke at the first attempt, and a swift hold made it 3-1.

This time, Evans held to love, but Tsitsipas served big for a 4-2 lead. Evans held to love again, throwing in a couple of destructive drop shots. However the Greek star maintained his impressive depth and pace, and drew one last error at the net from Evans to break for the match, 6-3, after a tidy hour and 21 minutes.

Tsitsipas was understandably pleased with his performance:

“I just managed to stay solid throughout the whole match, no real breakdowns, a good quality of tennis—which I enjoyed. I stayed quite calm, and I was impressed by the quality of my game today…

“Obviously, I was dominating a lot from my forehand side. I was constructing and building the point from the forehand side… My service games were close to excellent. I was just playing with a clear head and not thinking of too much, staying in the moment, trying to process what potentially he’s going to use on the court…”

He concluded:

“I hope to play even better in the last match… For sure I’m going to have to bring the best out of my game and reduce my mistakes, stay aggressive like today.”

He would not find out that opponent for many hours yet, as world No1 Novak Djokovic, playing in the knowledge that he had already guaranteed retaining that top ranking, took on No3 seed Gael Monfils.

Djokovic, a four-time champion in Dubai, had barely broken a sweat so far, dropping only 11 games in three matches. The Serb was in impenetrable and impressive form: He had won the ATP Cup with his compatriots, then his eighth Australian Open title, so had accumulated a 16-0 record in 2020 thus far. This match, though, would be different, even though he had accumulated a 16-0 record over the athletic showman Monfils.

Indeed Djokovic was the poorer player in the early goings, for when Monfils is in peak form, he is one of the most destructive players on the tour. After failing to convert an immediate break chance in the first game, the Frenchman pressured Djokovic time and again in the third. And after 12 minutes, repeated deuces and on the third break point, Monfils won a stunning exchange to break, 2-1.

The Frenchman consolidated at speed with a love hold, 3-1, and then had two more chances to break in the seventh game. A failed Serbian drop shot, and Monfils took a 5-2 lead, serving it out 6-2.

It did not take Monfils long to get ahead in the second set, too. A couple of return winners, and he had another break chance, swiftly converted, 2-1. Djokovic roared in frustration, released the tension, and it did the trick: He came into the fourth game refocused, and slotted a brilliant pass for deuce. But it would be in the sixth that he got the reward for his sustained attack, including a great drop winner, and he broke for 3-3.

The world No1 was now feeling the court perfectly, demonstrated by a 25-shot duel in the opening point of the seventh game. Monfils was forced to sprint for drop-shots, throwing himself onto the court, sweating profusely, while Djokovic, ignoring all the entertainment on the French side, was as cool as a cucumber.

Break chances—set points—came and went, and Monfils saved them to level 5-5: It would go to a thrilling tie-break.

With each struggling to win a point on serve, it was finally Monfils who crushed the ball to steal a 6-3 lead—three match points. But Djokovic is never more dangerous than when staring down defeat, and sure enough, he saved them all. It took him eight set points, but Djokovic at last levelled, 7-6(8) when Monfils double faulted.

The Frenchman had been doubled up in exhaustion between almost every point in the tie-break, and that exhaustion showed in the decider. He could hold off the former champion no longer, Djokovic broke in the third game, and after a brief delay for treatment to a Monfils leg, broke for a third time, 6-1, for his 17th win over Monfils.

Djokovic talked afterwards about facing break, and match, points:

“It’s like being on the edge of a cliff. You know there is no way back so you have to jump over and try to find a way to survive. That’s one of the things that I feel at the moment. OK, one point away, one shot away. There is no going back. This is it. I accept the situation and try to make the most out of it.

“Some concrete things that I do at that moment is just stay present and not allowing my thoughts to go around too much, focusing on breathing, just executing the next shot the right way, positioning myself well on the court… The more I experience it, the more I’m comfortable with this particular situation.”

So it has come down to the top two seeds, and in Tsitsipas, Djokovic faces one of the few men to have an even record against him. The Greek beat the Serb in that first Masters final in Toronto, and again at the Shanghai Masters last autumn. Djokovic got the upper hand at the Madrid and Paris Masters.

Djokovic said of his final opponent:

“He’s one of the leaders of the new generation. He is a hard worker, dedicated, very charismatic guy, nice guy. He has a lot of talent, lot of passion… I think he’s fantastic for our sport.

“It’s anybody’s game really… Yeah, I hope I can recover. I hope I can be at my best because I need to start better than I have tonight. Hopefully I can get a title.”

The final is at 7pm in Dubai, 3pm GMT.

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