Novak Djokovic’s Eastern Promise

Novak Djokovic is preparing to make his first appearance since the US Open in Beijing this week

novak djokovic
Novak Djokovic is in action in China this week Photo: Marianne Bevis

Things are looking very good indeed for a certain Novak Djokovic as he prepares to make his first appearance since the US Open on Beijing’s magnificent centre court tomorrow.

On the tennis front, he is about to embark on the defence of the four consecutive titles that closed out an impressive 74-9 season last year. Indeed after losing the US Open final, the Serb would go unbeaten until the quarter-finals of this year’s Australian Open, a run of 28 matches that took in two victories each over Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Stan Wawrinka.

This year, he had won three Masters by mid-May—again beating Nadal and Federer in finals—and reached the final at Roland Garros before topping off the summer with victory and the No1 ranking at Wimbledon.

He might be forgiven for the uncharacteristic losses that followed in Toronto and Cincinnati, for on the personal front, things have also been looking rosy. Now married to long-standing sweetheart Jelena, he revealed that he would soon become a father for the first time.

He has, in any case, been under no pressure to score big points in recent weeks: He was the first on the tour to qualify for the World Tour Finals in London back in July.

However, with the arrival of autumn, Djokovic’s semi run at the US Open showed that he was returning to the form that characterised not just last year’s Asian swing but every Asian swing. For China has proved to be a happy Serbian hunting ground.

In Beijing, for example, he has won the title on his last four visits—he missed out Asia in 2011—and so is aiming to extend a 19-0 unbeaten run dating back to 2009.

That isn’t all. Djokovic has also won the Shanghai Masters for the last two years, taking him to 20 straight match-wins on Chinese soil. Not since the semis in Shanghai in 2010 has he lost in China.

Incidentally, he can also claim a seventh title in China, and what a title. As a 21-year-old, and playing in his second ATP World Tour Finals (then called the Masters Cup), he won the first of his year-end titles in Shanghai. He will be aiming for his fourth when he defends the title at the O2 come November.

Aside from the record-making statistics that accompany Djokovic in Asia, though, he will also have an eye in his rear-view mirror, for he has one more prize in his sights. Having lost out to Nadal in the home straight to London last year, Djokovic will hope to claim the year-end No1 that he held in 2011 and 2012.

Currently, he leads Federer by over 1,100 points—and the Swiss is not playing this week so that gap is likely to grow. Djokovic leads Nadal by around 1,400 points, but the Spaniard is making his return to the tour in Beijing for the first time since Wimbledon, and has announced a packed schedule, even though he qualified for London soon after he was hit by wrist injury. He clearly plans to return with a bang, opting into the doubles draw in Beijing (though he lost in the first round) and for an exhibition match en route to China.

And Nadal’s results in Beijing have been far from shabby: As well as being losing finalist to Djokovic last year, he won on his debut in 2005 and reached the semis in 2009 before going on to the final of the Shanghai Masters.

But Nadal is just one of a top-quality field that he and Djokovic will have to dismiss if they are to contest the China Open final. Ten of the top 20 in the world are in action, including several with realistic shots at qualifying for London.

Chief among these are US Open champion Marin Cilic, at No5 in the race. The Croat is lined up to meet No10 Andy Murray, another man who has found huge success in China, in the quarters, with the survivor lined up for Djokovic.

No11 in the race, Grigor Dimitrov, could face Djokovic in the quarters, and has already survived a difficult first-round match against Fernando Verdasco.

Nadal’s first seed is scheduled to be No13 in the race, Ernests Gulbis, though the Spaniard has drawn perhaps the toughest unseeded man in Beijing for his first match, Richard Gasquet. Also in this half are outside hopes Fabio Fognini and John Isner.

But the rested Djokovic must be favoured to go deep in his part of the world. He talked glowingly of China and of his hopes here: “I enjoy my time in China… I have a big fan club here, teenagers especially, who come and support me, give me presents every day. That’s something that makes me feel very special and encourages me to play my best tennis here.

“As soon as I arrive, I feel this generosity from the people and I feel their hospitality. Then the court itself and the balls and the conditions are pretty suitable to my style of the game.

“To be able to experience support of such proportions is amazing to see. I’m very grateful for that. I try to return the favour with my tennis and obviously with my kindness to these people who follow me.”

Djokovic opens his Asian campaign against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, a man he has beaten in all seven previous meetings.

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