BRISBANE, Australia (AP) – Novak Djokovic got more than he bargained for in his first competitive match of 2020 before fending off Kevin Anderson 7-6 (5), 7-6 (6) late Saturday to secure Serbia’s win over South Africa at the ATP Cup.
The No. 2-ranked Djokovic, winner of a record seven Australian Open titles, was able to feed off the large Serbian crowd at Pat Rafter Arena in Brisbane to ensure his country got the new, season-opening team event started with a victory in Group A.
But he also had to remonstrate with the crowd when things got tense in the first tiebreaker, when spectators called out during rallies on consecutive points and Djokovic yelled toward the stands and held his finger to his lips to demand quiet. The chair umpire also intervened to ask the crowd to â€œshow good sportsmanshipâ€.
Top-ranked Rafael Nadal had an easier time in clinching Spain’s win over Georgia, on the opposite side of Australia, beating Nikoloz Basilashvili 6-3, 7-5 in Perth. Roberto Bautista Agut got Spain away to a flyer with a 6-0, 6-0 win over No. 678-ranked Aleksandre Metreveli.
The night time matches in Groups A and B were both sealed before the doubles, but in starkly contrasting fashion.
Former No. 5-ranked Anderson was coming off an injury-plagued season, including surgery on his right knee last September, and couldn’t initially keep up as Djokovic dropped just two points in the first three games and raced to a 4-1 lead.
But the 6-foot-8 South African warmed to the task and broke Djokovic’s serve in the seventh game when he chased down a drop shot and produced a forehand winner. Then he saved five breakpoints in the eighth game to get back on serve, heightening tension in the crowd and sparking chants of â€œNole, Nole, Nole, Noleâ€ from the pro-Djokovic crowd, referring to his nickname.
The second set went with serve and ended in another tiebreaker, with Anderson getting a chance to serve for the set at 6-5 when he hit a cross-court winner. But he netted a forehand, and Djokovic finished him off with a curling forehand winner to set up match point and then hit a winning volley.
He leaped into the air and pumped his fists high to celebrate.
â€œThank you for hanging in there (and for) showing a passion for this sport,â€ Djokovic said in an on-court TV interview. â€œI started off extremely well, Kevin raised his game. His quality of tennis was high. I was pleased with the way I managed to weather the storm.â€
Dusan Lajovic had earlier beaten Lloyd Harris 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3 to give Serbia a 1-0 lead, also getting a boost from the crowd.
â€œOh, yeah, it was great, a lot of Serbians out there. We didn’t expect so many of them on the first day but it was like playing in front of the home crowd, almost like Davis Cup,” Lajovic said. â€œI think that for the first day for us it went great with the crowd and getting the win and now putting less pressure on Novak. So I think that it started off well for Team Serbia.â€
In the earlier Group A match, Gael Monfils secured France’s victory over Chile when he rallied from a break down in the second set to defeat Cristian Garin 6-3, 7-5.
Benoite Paire opened for France with a 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-3 win over Nicolas Jarry. Chile cut the final margin to 2-1 when Jarry and Garin combined to win the doubles.
Japan swept its opening Group B match with straight-sets wins in both singles and the doubles against Uruguay in Perth. Go Soeda beat Martin Cuevas 6-1, 6-3 and Yoshihito Nishioka had a 6-0, 6-1 win over Pablo Cuevas in the singles matches.
Argentina needed a win in the doubles to edge Poland 2-1 in their Group E match in Sydney. Guido Pella gave Argentina the lead with a 6-2, 2-6, 6-2 win over Kamil Majchrzak before Hubert Hurkacz leveled with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 win over Diego Schwartzman.
Maximo Gonzalez and Andres Molteni beat Hurkacz and Lukasz Kubot 6-2, 6-4 to secure Argentina’s win.
â€œWe had the responsibility to go and give the point to Argentina, so it was really exciting,â€ Molteni said. â€œWe are really happy now of playing well and giving the point to Argentina.â€
The new 24-team men’s tournament started Friday in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth and will conclude with a final in Sydney on Jan. 12, leaving players time to fine-tune for the Australian Open in Melbourne.
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