Dubai. Novak Djokovic had a point to prove. Nearly down and out, and playing before a packed Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium, the world number one came crawling back from the precipice saving three match points for a highly-entertaining 2-6, 7-6 (8), 6-1 win over Frenchman Gael Monfils to enter the final of the Dubai Duty Free Men’s Open, late on Friday.
A former four-time champion here, Djokovic will meet last year’s runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final to be played at 7pm on Saturday. Tsitsipas had booked a place in his second final in as many years with a fluent 6-2, 6-3 win over Britain’s Daniel Evans earlier in the evening.
Losing finalist last year as Roger Federer picked up his eighth title in Dubai and a 100th singles career crown, Tsitsipas was never too bothered by his 29-year-old opponent in their first career meeting that lasted all of 80 minutes.
Making his ninth semi-final appearance on his eleven visits to Dubai, the 32-year-old world number one also went on to improve his unbeaten record to 17-0 so far this season, while extending his match-winning streak to 20 dating back to last year’s Davis Cup Finals.
The semi-final was played out in two parts: a stronger showing from Monfils in the first set and a major part of the second set during which Djokovic was seen scurrying around to keep himself in the match. The fitter Monfils displayed his superior court movement while nudging clear with a break in the third for 2-1, and held for a 3-1 lead. The Frenchman came up with a second break in the seventh as Djokovic attempted a dainty lob at the net to lead 5-2 to ultimately serve out the set 6-2 in 45 minutes.
Monfils was once again the dominant one in the third while breaking the world number one on love to be 2-1. After holding for a 3-1 cushion, Monfils was stunned by some clever court play as Djokovic broke back and held to sneak ahead 4-3 and then 6-6 to force the tie-breaker. Showing signs of tiring, the gangly French player was 6-3 up when Djokovic once again proved his resilience against odds to fight back to 6-6 and then win the tie-breaker 10-8.
The deciding third was more of a formality as Monfils didn’t even pretend to attempt extending his career-best winning streak past the current 12 matches he had racked up following victory over close friend Richard Gasquet, late on Thursday.
“I don’t want for it to sound so drastic. In a way, if I can make a comparison, it’s like that kind of a feeling for an athlete, in our sport when he’s facing a match point in a big match, 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 I guess and pray for the best and believe that you can make it, that there is something that is going to help you,” Djokovic said.
“Some concrete things that I do at that moment is just stay present and not allowing my thoughts to kind of go around too much, focusing on breathing, just executing the next shot the right way, positioning myself well on the court. I don’t know if I gave you a great analogy. That’s kind of one of the feelings that you have. It’s all or nothing. It’s a matter of life or death at that point,” he added.
Singles semi-finals: Stefanos Tsitsipas bt Daniel Evans 6-2, 6-3; Novak Djokovic bt Gael Monfils 2-6, 7-6 (8), 6-1.
Doubles semi-finals: John Peers/Michael Venus bt Jurgen Melzer/Edouard Roger-Vasselin 7-6 (2), 6-2; Raven Klaasen/Oliver Marach bt Henri Kontinen/Jan-Lennard Struff 6-3, 6-2.
Order of play (Saturday)
Doubles final, 5pm: John Peers/Michael Venus vs Raven Klaasen/Oliver Marach
Singles final, 7pm: Novak Djokovic vs Stefanos Tsitsipas