For a set and a half in Dubai, Sergiy Stakhovsky, the 74th-ranked player in the world, served up a seemingly near-perfect blueprint of how to play Novak Djokovic. Stakhovsky, the 6'4", hard-serving, gumby-bodied 26-year-old, dictated most of the points for the first 17 games and one tie-breaker of this second-round match by serve-and-volleying, chip-and-charging, and making the points short. Djokovic was clearly uncomfortable as he dumped a number of slice backhands into the net and was forced to come back from two mini-breaks down in the tiebreaker. Still, Stakhovsky recorded the first break of the match at 1-1 of the second set, and consolidated the break with a winning service game. But then the wheels fell off of Stakhovsky's unorthodox game, and Djokovic, as he so often does, found an extra gear, winning the last five games of the match to secure a 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory.
The tennis was very creative and not the kind of baseline war typical of the tour these days. Stakhovsky, an intelligent man who speaks five languages, idolized Patrick Rafter and Pete Sampras. It shows in his game, right down to his one-handed backhand and net-charging tactics, along with plenty of power, touch, and agility. Changing pace and length of shot to force the world No. 1 up to net more than he likes, Stakhovsky had Djokovic shaking his head and looking up to his box, where his brother, Marko, and parents sat (his coach, Marian Vajda, and girlfriend, Jelena Ristic, were absent). But as the match moved into its second hour, the tall Ukranian's ground strokes, particularly his backhand, started to break down. Serving at 3-2 in the second set, an ill-advised forehand drop shot by Stakhovsky sat up too high, allowing the Serb to whisk it cross-court for a winner. The subsequent break of serve prefaced the collapse of Stakhovsky's house of cards. Djokovic was firmly in control from then on and finished off the match with his eighth ace. In the end, he won 80 percent of his first-serve points in going 9-0 on the year.
Stakhovsky, who was a career-high No. 31 back in September of 2010, has not played well since he won New Haven that season. His 2012 record is now 3-7, and he has not ventured past the second round in any of the six tournaments he's played in. He plays a very entertaining game—not unlike the top Ukranian player, Alexandr Dolgopolov—and didn't so much as wince during his center-court match with Djokovic. As for the winner, Djokovic will face a quarterfinal encounter with either Janko Tipsarevic or Flavio Cipolla.