Novak Djokovic remains unbeaten in 2023 — but only after the Serbian held off a ferocious challenge from Tomas Machac for a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(1) win Tuesday at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
Machac showcased some top-class shotmaking, particularly off the backhand wing, to roar back into contention after a fast start from Djokovic at the ATP 500. The World No. 1 was at times visibly frustrated at struggling to find his best level, but composed himself in trademark fashion in the deciding-set tie-break to ward off the upset and take a hard-earned two-hour, 28-minute victory.
“Tomas certainly didn’t play like the No. 130 in the world today,” Djokovic said of Machac, who reached his career-high of No. 97 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings last December. “He was giving me all kinds of trouble. But i guess when it mattered, I found another gear.”
Djokovic had led 4-1 in the third set before an inspired Machac rallied to take the 93-time tour-level titlist the distance in the U.A.E. Yet the Serbian held on for the win, and is now 13-0 for the 2023 season after previously winning an ATP 250 in Adelaide and lifting a record-equalling 22nd Grand Slam at January’s Australian Open.
Although Djokovic struck 44 winners to Machac’s 34, the Czech rarely allowed the Serbian to dictate play for extended periods in their maiden ATP Head2Head meeting. He moved forward effectively, winning 18 of 25 points he played at the net, and Djokovic had to rely heavily on his serve to repel his inspired opponent. The top seed sent down 12 aces and saved seven of 10 break points he faced.
“Physically you can always be better,” said Djokovic, who was playing his first match since his Australian Open title run. “I demand the highest of standards, levels, and quality of tennis and preparation that I can possibly get.
“I did struggle with injury for several weeks and it took me a little bit of time to get used to holding the racquet. I haven’t played much tennis coming into Dubai, so I’m hoping that as the tournament progresses, I can raise the level of tennis as well.”
Djokovic’s thrilling win came a day after he overtook Stefanie Graf’s record for most weeks by a men’s or women’s tennis player as World No. 1. A small presentation noting the 35-year-old’s achievement was held post-match at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium.
“It is very special,” acknowledged Djokovic. “As a young boy growing up in Serbia, I dreamt of two things — winning Wimbledon and being No. 1 in the world. I’ve been blessed to achieve both of my childhood dreams, several times, and I guess when that happened, I had to set new goals, new ambitions.
“I’m extremely grateful that I’m able to play at this level after many years. Obviously, It’s a team effort, it’s a family effort, regardless of the fact that this is an individual sport… A lot of hours go into preparing me to be able to perform… I’m flattered and thrilled to be amongst the biggest names this sport has ever had, Steffi Graf being one of them.”
Having finished his 2022 season by going unbeaten at the Nitto ATP Finals, Djokovic’s current winning streak now stands at 18. The World No. 1 is this week chasing his sixth title in Dubai, where he triumphed in 2009-2011, 2013 and 2020. His next opponent in the U.A.E. will be World No. 39 Tallon Griekspoor.