Novak Djokovic’s time at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships — and his reign at world No. 1 — were ended in sensational style by Czech qualifier Jiri Vesely on Thursday night.
The Serb star was sent tumbling out of the tournament by an opponent who started the match 122 spots below him in the rankings and was only returning to action after a torrid six months in which he was involved in a serious car crash and suffered badly with Covid-19 and injury.
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Djokovic himself is just getting back in action for the first time this year in Dubai, having last played competitively in December.
His 2022 season was halted before it began when he was deported from Australia following a drawn-out dispute over his medical exemption from the country’s Covid vaccination rules.
Now he will have to go back to the drawing board as he chases a sixth Dubai title and — just like in Australia where Rafael Nadal won his 21st Grand Slam to edge ahead on the overall Grand Slam race with Djokovic — watch the rest of the tournament from the sidelines rather than on the court.
Vesely broke early in the first set to take the lead and then — following an exchange of breaks — held his nerve to claim the decisive tiebreak at the end of the second for a famous 6-4, 7-6 victory.
The result means Daniil Medvedev will take over as world No. 1 when the new rankings are released on Monday, ending Djokovic’s record 361 weeks at the top of the pile. It will be the first time since 2004 that someone other than Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer or Andy Murray will hold top spot.
Vesely had to come through three rounds of qualifying and see off Grand Slam champion Marin Cilic and last week’s Qatar Open winner Roberto Bautista Agut to set up the clash with Djokovic — and now he has a place in the semi-finals.
“It is amazing to beat someone like Novak — one of the best of all time, if not the best,” he said. "After the past 12 months I have been going through, this is unbelievable. I have so many emotions inside I don’t know what to do.”
Beating Djokovic is not a new experience for Vesely, as he defeated him the last time they met. When asked what confidence he had taken from that, he laughed: “Not much. To be honest, Novak is such a great ground-stroke player and he moves around so well and every ball is so good. You really have to earn it against him and fight for every single ball. I think I did an amazing job today."
Vesely also had to fight against a pro-Djokovic crowd, with chants and Serbia flags all around Centre Court. But he himself earned the biggest roar when he claimed his first match point.
“This is always such a great support,” he said. “Whoever is here — Novak, Roger, Rafa — everyone gets a great support. It is always fully packed here. Sometimes the crowd cheer louder for the biggest stars but I really enjoyed it. Playing against the biggest names in front of this great crowd is a joy. I dream about these moments my whole life and the atmosphere is amazing.”
On becoming the kingmaker for Medvedev, he added: “I just didn’t want to mess up my perfect record against Novak. But seriously, it is great for tennis to have someone new at No. 1, and Novak has been such a champion along with Roger, Rafa and Andy Murray for so long. Maybe now is the time for the next generation to come through.”
Sixth seed Denis Shapovalov didn’t face a break point as he overcame qualifier Ricardas Berankis 7-6, 6-3 and will take on Vesely on Friday.