Written by by Staff Writer
Casper Ruud kept his big serve in the match but could not stop Novak Djokovic from securing his first success at the prestigious end-of-season tournament.
The 31-year-old won 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 against the 30-year-old Frenchman in the first round of the ATP Finals in London on Saturday morning, and will now face German Alexander Zverev in round two.
“The problem is I was really nervous today, especially in the beginning of the match,” Djokovic said. “I wasn’t very aggressive and I started to rely on my serve. I was not serving cleanly enough at all, but I managed to stay calm, I managed to regroup, I managed to regain my composure, and that was key in the end.”
Despite struggling to create any rhythm on his serve, there was only ever a 50-50 split between the pair throughout a close and intense contest at the O2 Arena.
But Djokovic’s scrappy victory had many watching at home on television transfixed on a catfight between the two men’s boxers, with Djokovic’s wife, Jelena, acting as his publicist during the match.
She was clearly emotional throughout the match, and was seen voicing her frustrations to Djokovic’s entourage between points, asking for him to listen to her side of the argument.
The Serbian mixed the intensity with the emotional scenes as the former world number one saved break points in the sixth game of the third set as his nerves seemed to be getting the better of him.
“I am going to try and go out there and have fun tonight, but if I can build a positive atmosphere, with positive vibrations,” Djokovic added. “It is so much fun for me to be out there and playing this tournament.”
Djokovic’s rival Andy Murray, who withdrew from the competition with a hip injury, and Roger Federer, who had to withdraw prior to the start of the event due to a back injury, were both given wild cards into the event.
Meanwhile, Croatia’s Marin Cilic defeated Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori of Japan dispatched Johan “Janko” Tipsarevic of Serbia, and Italy’s Fabio Fognini beat Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta.
Djokovic, who has won the tournament four times, made the most of his first opportunity against Ruud, who dominated the opening set without quite reaching the heights Djokovic was able to reach.
“The set has been extremely long,” the Serbian said. “Fortunately I managed to play my best tennis in the third set. He served incredibly, I had a lot of break points in the second set, unfortunately I couldn’t capitalize.”
Ruud will next face Japan’s Nishikori, who reached the final of this year’s tournament in London, meaning a winner this year will qualify automatically for next year’s season-ending event in Dubai.
“Today was a crazy match,” Nishikori said. “I’m happy to win. It’s always fun playing against Kei.”
Nishikori beat the sixth-seeded Fognini 6-3, 6-3, and will face Federer in the round of 16 on Monday. The Swiss will be an imposing opponent for the 23-year-old, although he did seem impressed by Cilic’s level of play, beaming: “Marin played great.”
Djokovic will be hoping to reach the semi-finals of the ATP Finals for the third time in four years, as well as clinch his 25th title on the ATP Tour this year.