Erste Bank Open: Novak Djokovic closes on year-end No1 with opening Vienna win
Top seed now 38-2 for season, and eyes record milestones at ATP Finals
It is a very long time since world No1 Novak Djokovic featured in the draw of the Erste Bank Open in Vienna, one of the few ATP500s to have survived this year’s coronavirus pandemic.
But the world’s leading player has, throughout this truncated season, had his eye on not one prize but several. He is within touching distance of claiming his sixth year-end No1, which would equal Pete Sampras’s record—and make Djokovic the oldest to achieve the milestone to boot.
And looking beyond the end of the year, Djokovic is also closing rapidly on a record that few thought would be beaten for many years. Roger Federer has accumulated 310 weeks as No1, more than any other man, but his Serbian rival is already up to 292 weeks and the hot favourite to reach the end of the season—late November—at the top of the pile. That means he cannot be overtaken until well into 2021, and should he still be No1 come March, he will have one of the most sought-after records on his wish-list.
So why Vienna? It is the one of the key remaining tournaments where Djokovic can gain points over last year—for he already owns maximum points at next week’s Paris Masters which, in the current ATP scenario, he can keep until next year.
So he voted with his feet, opted for the extra points he can gain in Vienna, and bypassed Paris to keep his reserves for a record-equalling campaign at the ATP Finals.
However, there is no getting away from the fact that Vienna has attracted one its best ever fields. For a start, its rival for the players’ attention this week, the Basel Indoors, was suspended for 2020. And with the door closing on the last two spots for the ATP Finals, the Austrian tournament could make all the difference to hopefuls such as Andrey Rublev and Pablo Carreno Busta.
That said, considering the draw began with eight of the top 12, things had taken on a better look for Djokovic ahead of his opening match against fellow Serb Filip Krajinovic.
His first seed, Diego Schwartzman, scheduled for the quarters, withdrew with a shoulder injury, and in the knowledge that he had to win the title to gain any points. Then another seed in the top half, Denis Shapovalov, bowed out in his first match—and went on to pull the plug on his ATP Finals charge by withdrawing from the Paris Masters.
Thus the biggest threat to the top seed ahead of the final would be No3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who has two wins from six meetings with Djokovic.
However, the young Greek may first have to face Grigor Dimitrov in the second round after the Bulgarian, ranked 20, beat Karen Khachanov in impressive style, 7-6(6), 6-3. Dimitrov hit 25 winners for just 13 errors, and made 14/14 at the net.
But Djokovic arrived in Vienna as the favourite not just to reach the final but to win the title. After all, even in this short season, he had lost only one completed match in 39 played this year, to Rafael Nadal in the French Open final. That is 37 wins and five titles—if his unbeaten six-match run in Serbia’s victory at the ATP Cup is included.
Add into the odds that Nadal is not in the draw this week, and Djokovic’s biggest concern was likely to be the second seed and defending champion, home hero Dominic Thiem.
The Austrian star won his first Major at the US Open having made the final at the Australian Open as well. In Melbourne, indeed, he came close to beating Djokovic, losing from two sets to one up, and dating back to the start of 2017, Thiem had won four of their seven matches.
Yet his route to another Djokovic final was rather more formidable. Thiem may have drawn a lucky loser in his opener courtesy of Alex de Minaur’s late withdrawal, but second in line would be either Wawrinka or No22 Cristian Garin, followed by one of the players of the year in the shape of Rublev. The Russian had accumulated a 35-7 tally via four titles this year, and this same quarter also boasted fast-rising teenager Sinner or 21-year-old No27 Casper Ruud.
But first things first: Could Djokovic win his 40th match of the season?
He was certainly tested by his compatriot in the first game, through almost nine minutes and two break points, but held. There were no such problems in his next hold, to love with an ace, and he then broke Krajinovic, 3-1.
However, Djokovic was making some uncharacteristic errors, while his opponent was mixing things up well, and picking off some good net plays. Krajinovic broke back, and then broke again to take the lead, though he had to defend break points with some pinpoint serving to go 5-3. But come the key game, serving for the set, it went horribly wrong as nerves took a hold, and two wayward errors conceded the break, 5-5.
They headed to a tie-break, with Djokovic holding the momentum, but neither man held serve for the first four points, and with well over an hour’s play on the clock. The top seed aced to break that pattern, 3-2, but Krajinovic had the first chance to serve out the set, only to net a tight overhead, and Djokovic took it, 7-6(6).
With his opponent’s resistance and nerves broken, it was a swifter job for Djokovic in the second set, after getting a quick break for 2-1. He faced and saved just one break-back point and served out set and match, 6-3.
He next plays Borna Coric, who beat Taylor Fritz, 6-4, 6-4. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the Djokovic half, Dan Evans beat Aljaz Bedene, 6-3, 4-5.
London qualification thus far.
1 Novak Djokovic
2 Rafael Nadal
3 Dominic Thiem
[Federer absent following knee surgery]
4 Stefanos Tsitsipas
5 Daniil Medvedev
6 Alexander Zverev
Next to qualify
7 Andrey Rublev
8 Diego Schwartzman [not playing Vienna]
9 Matteo Berrettini [not playing Vienna]
[Gael Monfils closed season with injury]
[Shapovalov w’drawn from Paris Masters]
10 Bautista Agut [not playing Vienna]
11 David Goffin [not playing Vienna]
12 Pablo Carreno Busta
[Fabio Fognini w’drawn from Paris Masters]
[Karen Khachanov lost R1 Vienna]
13 Stan Wawrinka
14 Grigor Dimitrov
Current: Vienna 500/Astana, Nur-Sultan 250
2-8 November: Paris 1000
8-14 November: Sofia 250
15-22 November: ATP Finals