Djokovic finds 'another gear' to down Machac in Dubai opener
Novak Djokovic was made to work in his first match since winning the Australian Open last month, needing three close sets to move past world No.130 Tomas Machac in Dubai on Tuesday.
Undefeated so far in 2023, and carrying a 17-match winning streak coming into the UAE, dating back to last year's ATP Finals, Djokovic showed signs of rustiness in his 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7/1) win over the Czech qualifier.
Djokovic, who this week has broken Steffi Graf's all-time record of 377 weeks at world number one, recently recovered from a muscle tear in his left hamstring, which he sustained in Australia on his way to a record-equalling 22nd Grand Slam title.
It was an impressive performance from Machac, who was facing a top-10 opponent for just the fourth time in his career.
The two players hit a combined 78 winners during the two-hour 27-minute affair. But it was Djokovic's 28 unforced errors that at times proved costly.
"Tomas definitely didn't play like 130 in the world today," said the 35-year-old Djokovic.
"He was giving me all kinds of trouble, but I guess when it mattered, I found another gear.
- 'Raise my level' -
"Physically, you can always be better. I did struggle with injury for several weeks and it took me a bit of time to get used to holding the racquet. I haven't played much tennis coming into Dubai, so I'm hoping as the tournament progresses, I can raise my level of tennis."
Djokovic and Machac traded breaks in games four and five before the top seed struck again and consolidated his advantage for a 5-2 lead. It was all the Serb needed to wrap up the opening set in 37 minutes.
That didn't deter Machac, who outlasted Djokovic in a lengthy exchange to break early in the second set to open up a 3-0 gap.
The 22-year-old qualifier valiantly covered all corners of the court and benefitted from 16 unforced errors off the Djokovic racquet to force a decider against the five-time Dubai champion.
A smooth volley winner from Machac gave the Czech an early look at the Djokovic serve but the world number one survived the scare and held.
Machac received treatment for a right wrist problem mid-game at 0-1, deuce, in the final set, before successfully holding serve, but soon fell behind 1-4 to an opportunistic Djokovic.
Back-to-back errors off both wings from Djokovic helped Machac narrow his deficit and they were soon on level terms at 4-all.
The match fittingly went to a deciding tiebreak, which Djokovic comfortably secured to set up a second-round meeting with Dutchman Tallon Griekspoor.
Earlier, third seed Daniil Medvedev extended his winning streak to 10 consecutive matches as he began his quest for a third title in as many weeks with a 6-4, 6-2 victory over Italian lucky loser Matteo Arnaldi.
Medvedev, competing in Dubai for the first time since 2019, picked up trophies in Rotterdam and Doha coming into the tournament.
The Russian former world number one had voiced his concerns over the Dunlop ball in use at tournaments like the Australian Open, Doha and Dubai this year.
“Last two games before they change the balls, the balls are like apples,” said Medvedev.
"They are so, so big. You're kind of playing like padel. You hit the ball. Whoever hits it with angle... You don't feel like you're controlling the game anymore."
Medvedev will next take on Kazakhstan's Alexander Bublik in the second round on Wednesday.
Fourth seed Felix Auger-Aliassime made a successful tournament debut, avenging his defeat to Maxime Cressy from Wimbledon last year by overcoming the American 7-6 (7/4), 3-6, 6-3.
Cressy, a Paris-born serve-and-volleyer, fired 27 aces but also committed 25 double faults throughout the three-hour contest, which saw Auger-Aliassime convert just one of 14 break point opportunities.
The Canadian world No.9 will next take on Italian Lorenzo Sonego for a place in the quarter-finals.