Dubai, UAE – Qualifier Jiri Vesely stunned top seed and five-time champion Novak Djokovic 6-4 7-6 on Thursday to reach the semi-finals of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Vesely will now play Denis Shapovalov in one semi-final, and Andrey Rublev and Hubert Hurkacz will contest the other.
Second seed Rublev, who is bidding for his 10th career title, was forced to stage an impressive recovery for the second straight day to overcome Mackenzie McDonald 2-6 6-3 6-1, fifth seeded Hurkacz was too strong for Jannik Sinner as he beat the number four seed 6-3 6-3, and sixth seed Denis Shapovalov didn’t face a break point as he overcame qualifier Ricardas Berankis 7-6 6-3.
Not only did Vesely’s victory deny Djokovic another Dubai title, but it means that on Monday he will surrender the number one ranking to Daniil Medvedev. It is the first time since 2004 that neither Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray will hold the top spot.
“We congratulate Jiri Vesely on his fantastic victory, which kept us on the edge of our seats throughout what was a thrilling contest from beginning to end,” said Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free. “We also congratulate our other semi-finalists, and look forward with great anticipation to see which one of them will go on to win the title on Saturday.”
Djokovic was under pressure right from the start, dropping his serve in the opening game of the match. And although the top seed managed to level at 2-2 he continued to struggle against his powerful and big-serving opponent and double-faulted to drop his serve a second time to gift Vesely a 4-3 lead.
Vesely went on to take the set, and although Djokovic gave up just one point in his first three service games of the second set he then dropped his serve for a third time at 3-3. With the match finely balanced and with both players showing great all-court skills, Vesely looked as if might falter at the last when he was broken as he served for victory at 5-4, but he held his nerve in the tiebreak to claim an historic victory.
“Yeah, great atmosphere like in the first two matches,” said Djokovic. “I want to thank the crowd for creating a great atmosphere on the court for both players. The crowd was cheering me on. I was very blessed to be in that position.
“Unfortunately, wasn't my day. I congratulate Jiri. He played better. He just went for his shots. His serve was big. His whole game was big. When he needed to come up with the good shots, he did, putting a lot of pressure also on my service games. His backhand on this surface where it's really fast and it stays low is really effective.
“I was keeping my fighting spirit there. I really tried till the last shot. I managed to break his serve when he was serving for the match. Just kept it going, really pushed him to the last shot.”
Vesely knew that a good start was essential, and admitted he was so tired by the end that he barely thought about the score.
“Well, I felt pretty nervous in the beginning of the match. It's always important to start good because once they start with a break or something, they loosen up a little bit, get more relaxed, then it's very hard to stop these guys.” he said. “Of course I was also nervous at 5-4 in the second set, 4-3 already when I knew it's not far away. I did maybe some little easy mistakes. But Novak played a great game to 5-All anyway.
“The match overall was very, very physical. At the end I was really pretty tired. But maybe this helped me to not think too much about the potential win, if I would make that service game at 5-4. Also in the tiebreak I was always leading. Yeah, I was just so tired that I wasn't really thinking too much about it.”
Rublev began slowly in his second round match against Soonwoo Kwon and did so again against McDonald, falling behind 5-0 and holding serve just once in the first set. He also had his back against the wall early in the second set as McDonald held a break point to lead 2-0 and another two break points for a 3-1 lead.
But after soaking up that pressure, Rublev finally opened the door to a recovery by holding off the three game points his opponent held at 2-2 and gaining his first break of the match to lead 3-2. He broke again at 5-3, and in a reverse of the opening set Rublev then built an intimidating 5-0 lead in the third set for the loss of just five points.
Rublev admitted to feeling the effects of so many recent matches, and he hopes that it will not affect his emotions as he continues to steer himself through what has been a challenging week.
“I feel completely tired, to be honest. I'm happy I was still able to win a match today. But I feel really, really tired. We'll see,” said a relieved Rublev. “For me, the toughest part is emotions. Of course, for me it's much easier to control them when I'm fresh, when I'm feeling good, I don't know, in confidence, I have confidence, then I control them better. Of course, when I'm tired, exhausted like now, not really energy, my brain is not working the same way. Of course, it's tough to control emotions.”
Hurkacz will play in an ATP 500 semi-final for the first time in his career on Friday. Just one break of serve decided the opening set, as Sinner double-faulted on game point and then fell behind as Hurkacz broke with his fourth break point of the game to lead 4-2. A break for 2-1 then gave Hurkacz an early advantage in the second set and he went on to break again at 5-3, claiming victory on his third match point.
Shapovalov was never under any great pressure from Berankis, but neither player was able to earn a break point in the first set. Once Shapovalov secured that in a tiebreaker, though, he raised his level and cruised to victory.
“We have seen great drama again, with Jiri Vesely fully deserving his momentous victory over Novak Djokovic,” said Tournament Director Salah Tahlak. “A great player like Djokovic does not surrender easily, and Vesely had to fight very hard for his place in the semi-finals. Andrey Rublev and Denis Shapovalov are both into the semi-finals for the second straight year, and Hubert Hurkacz is certain to also be a strong contender for the title.”
The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, which continues until 26th February, is owned and organised by Dubai Duty Free and held under the patronage of H. H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.