Djokovic is playing the Japan Open for the first time, having picked it as the spot for his return to action after retiring in the fourth round of the US Open with a left shoulder injury, and so far he can have absolutely no cause to criticize his own form on his debut. The world no. 1 is into the semifinals of the 500-level event without dropping a set, and although his performances over qualifier Alexei Popyrin and wildcard Go Soeda were straightforward straight-set wins, functional rather than sparkling, his quarterfinal defeat of Lucas Pouille was an absolute gem of a performance.
Djokovic had allowed Pouille just four games when they met in the semifinals of the Australian Open in January, but was pushed to a tie-break in the first set of their Cincinnati Masters clash in August. There would be no repeat of that tight set in Friday’s quarterfinal encounter, however, as Djokovic took just 50 minutes to eviscerate the world no. 24.
It really was a ridiculously good performance by Djokovic, who showed absolutely no sign of that shoulder injury bothering him as he served eight aces, lost just nine points on serve throughout the match and converted five of six break points. Not only did Djokovic win most of the points on his own serve, he also won most of the points on Pouille’s serve and at one point reeled off seven games in a row.
The only slight blemish on Djokovic’s performance was the fact that he did drop serve once, but it seems churlish to even point it out when the overall win was so devastating.
‘It was definitely one of the best matches I’ve played this year. Best one of this week [and it] came at the right time. I thought Lucas was playing really well the first couple of matches in this tournament,’ Djokovic said.
‘I saw him play a couple of days ago against Nishioka and he was playing really well. I took away the time from him. I served well, served many aces, returned a lot of his serves back and just used every opportunity to come in. Just overall, a really flawless performance.’
Djokovic is now looking to make his fifth final of the season and his first since winning Wimbledon with that memorable match-point-saving victory over Roger Federer – and he has every incentive to try to reach the 110th ATP-level final of his career, as Rafael Nadal’s withdrawal from the Shanghai Rolex Masters, which was announced on Friday, has given Djokovic the opportunity to take the lead in the battle to be ranked world no. 1 at the end of the year.
Djokovic would say himself that performances as good as the one he delivered against Pouille come round rarely – but he won’t be letting down his guard as he prepares to take on David Goffin in Friday’s semifinals.
Goffin has now established a 12-1 win-loss record at the Rakuten Japan Open where he made the final on his debut (as Djokovic is aiming to do) in 2016, finishing runner-up to Nick Kyrgios, and won the title in 2017 before going on to reach the final of the Nitto ATP Finals by the end of the season.
The Belgian did not play the Japan Open in 2018, a season in which he struggled with various injuries and which he shut down early, only playing one match after the US Open. But that means that he has no points to defend from now until the end of 2019 – and he’s playing some fantastic tennis, maintaining his momentum from a good American hard-court swing which saw him reach a maiden Masters 1000 Series final in Cincinnati and make the last 16 of the US Open, very solid results compared to the first half of the season for which he had little to show except a runner-up finish in Halle in June.
Goffin had to save multiple match points in the first round of the Japan Open this week when he came back from a set down against Chengdu champion Pablo Carreno Busta to win 1-6, 7-68), 6-0, but he hasn’t looked back since, beating Denis Shapovalov in a pair of high-quality tie-break sets and then cheerfully romping through Hyeon Chung – the 2018 Australian Open semifinalist who had beaten Marin Cilic in the previous round – 6-2, 6-2 on Friday.
‘Goffin … is someone that is in form. Played the finals in Cincinnati and has been coming closer and closer to top-15, top-10 of the world. So I’m looking forward to a great challenge tomorrow,’ Djokovic said.
Djokovic leads the head-to-head with Goffin 6-1. Goffin only managed to win one set during their first five matches, but snapped Djokovic’s winning streak against him at the 2017 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, although Djokovic reasserted his authority in the match-up pretty comprehensively at Wimbledon this summer when he beat Goffin 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 in the quarterfinals. Djokovic at one point won ten games in a row and totally cruised after a reasonably tight first set. ‘You have to play the perfect point to win it. Every ball is at your feet. He puts pressure on you all the time, deep, deep, left, right, everywhere,’ a dejected Goffin said afterwards.
The good news for Goffin is that Djokovic probably can’t produce the level of tennis he played against Pouille two matches in a row – the bad news is that Djokovic probably won’t need to, because he is so good at doing some of the things that Goffin does best, better. The scoreline should be closer than it was against Pouille (or against Goffin himself at Wimbledon) but it should still be Djokovic who comes through to the final on Saturday.
Djokovic vs Goffin Japan Open tennis is live from Tokyo on Saturday at 3pm local/7am BST
Djokovic vs Goffin tennis live streaming, preview and predictions – Djokovic on ominously good form at Japan Open
Novak Djokovic aims to reach his fifth final of 2019 on his debut at the Rakuten Japan Open as he…
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