Under Melbourne lights, Djokovic pushes past Struff for 900th victory

Under Melbourne lights, Djokovic pushes past Struff for 900th victory

The seven-time champion came through a tough opener, 7-6 (5), 6-2, 2-6, 6-1, to begin his Australian Open title defense, joining Stefanos Tsitsipas as night-session winners on Monday.

Seven-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic opened his title defense on Monday evening, but was made to work by his first-round opponent, Jan-Lennard Struff. Playing under a closed Rod Laver Arena which experienced a leak on one end of the court, the No. 2 seed advanced, 7-6 (5), 6-2, 2-6, 6-1, to secure his 900th career victory, becoming the sixth ATP player to achieve the feat.

“I’m just starting,” Djokovic joked with John McEnroe in an on-court interview. “I’m obviously very proud of all the achievements. But at the same time I try to remind myself how grateful I have to be. I’m still playing on a very high level with the sport I truly love.”

Coming off a 6-0 record in the ATP Cup, where he defeated Rafael Nadal to help lead Serbia to the title, Djokovic brought plenty of early season form to the table. For Struff, you could say it was an unkind draw for a player two spots away from being seeded. In his box sat Craig O’Shannessy, a renowned analytics-driven strategist who worked with Djokovic over the course of three seasons. The two announced they went their separate ways ahead of the tournament.

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Djokovic was locked in from the first point and seemed poised to close out the first set at 5-3. Struff scrambled well to create a window and on his second opportunity, broke back before leveling. Heading into the tiebreaker, the German was surprisingly winning more 5-plus shot rallies than the defensive wizard across the net. He erased an early deficit, but a netted forehand handed the mini break back to Djokovic, who reached back for a big serve to clinch a one-set lead.

The 16-time major champion regained control, breaking to start the second set. He struck 14 winners to just two unforced errors to extend his lead. Despite his deficit Struff continued competing. As he dug in and showcased nifty work at the net, Djokovic dipped. His first percentage fell considerably and Struff capitalized to break three times, with the final coming off a Djokovic double fault to end the set. It marked his first set won in eight played against the Serbian.

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Djokovic immediately brushed aside his period of flat play, winning the first eight of nine points. The rapid momentum change held, as Struff tossed in a double to gift Djokovic a second break. The 32-year-old shut the door from there to improve to 3-0 against Struff and in turn, notched his 55th successive victory in the opening round of a major.

World No. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas was also victorious during night-session action, strolling into the second round with a 6-0, 6-2, 6-3 victory over Salvatore Caruso. Tsitsipas, who ousted Roger Federer en route to his first major semifinal here a year ago, was nearly untouchable on serve. The Greek did not face a break point, losing just three points on his first serve to move through in one hour and 43 minutes.

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After losing in the opening round of Wimbledon and the US Open, Tsitsipas regrouped last fall, defeating then No. 1 Djokovic in Shanghai before going on to win his biggest title to date at the ATP Finals over Dominic Thiem. Prior to arriving in Melbourne, the 21-year-old went 1-2 at the inaugural ATP Cup, dropping clashes to Nick Kyrgios and Denis Shapovalov and losing his cool in a heated moment that left him “embarrassed.”