World No. 1, Novak Djokovic returns to singles action on Tuesday as he takes on Australian qualifier, Alexei Popyrin in the first round of the Japan Open in Tokyo.
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Djokovic last played at the US Open, where he was forced to retire from his fourth round meeting with Stan Wawrinka with a shoulder injury.
There have been varying reports about the degree of the problem, with some suggesting the Serbian may require surgery and could be out for the rest of the season, but that has proven not to the case, with the 32-year-old set making his comeback in Tokyo.
He has already played a doubles match, partnering Filip Krajinovic in a 6-2 4-6 10-4 loss to Bruno Soares and Mate Pavic on Monday.
“One of the reasons for playing the doubles was that I wanted to see how the shoulder feels during match play,” Djokovic said. “Obviously, doubles is quite different from singles, but you’re still playing an official match — you still get the nerves, and have to battle on court”.
“There was a lot of serving and returning, slow balls and fast balls, but it seems like my shoulder is fine after that, so I’m hoping that’s going to be the case for the singles.”
Djokovic is featuring at the Japan Open for the first time, departing from his previous norm of competing at the China Open in Beijing in the corresponding week. The Serbian is a six-time champion in Beijing.
The 16-time major winner is celebrating a 271st week at world No. 1 this week, overtaking Ivan Lendl into third on the all-time list. Only Pete Sampras, on 286 weeks, Roger Federer, on 310, are ahead of him on the all-time list. However, he faces a tough battle to hold on to the top ranking for the rest of the year, with Rafael Nadal in particularly closing in. Djokovic and Nadal are separated by just 640 points on the ATP rankings, with the Serbian still having quite a bit to defend in the remainder of the year, and Nadal, defending nothing.
Djokovic had regained that ranking in spectacular fashion towards the end of last season, bouncing back from a forgettable first half of the year, when he had elbow surgery, completely lost form and fell out of the world’s top-20. Some dared to write him off at that point, but he launched a sensational recovery in the second half, winning Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon and the US Open, and Masters 1000 crowns in Cincinnati and Shanghai.
He continued in similar vein at the start of 2019, winning the Australian Open, but his bid for a second Djokovic Slam was thwarted at Roland Garros by Dominic Thiem, who ended the Serbian’s Grand Slam winning streak with victory in the French Open semis. His other titles have come in Barcelona and Wimbledon, where he saved two match points against Roger Federer before winning an epic five-set final.
Djokovic also made a final in Rome, and semi-finals in Doha and Cincinnati in the other highlights of his season.
He will seek another deep run this week in Tokyo as he takes on Popyrin on Tuesday.
Australian young gun, Popyrin came in through the qualifying rounds, beating Yosuke Watanuki and James Duckworth to take his place in the main draw. The 20-year-old Australian has compiled a 10-16 record for the season as he continues to find his way around the main tour.
Popyrin has saved his best performances for the Grand Slams, reaching the third round at the Australian Open and Flushing Meadows, scoring his maiden top-ten win in the process (against Dominic Thiem in Australia, albeit, via retirement). The only other meet where he won consecutive main draw matches was in Atlanta, where he defeated Denis Kudla and Pierre-Hugues Herbert before falling to Cameron Norrie in his only quarter final of the season.
Popyrin also won one match each at Roland Garros and Wimbledon to take his Grand Slam tally for the season to 6-4 for the season, having never won a match on that stage before the start of 2019.
Another milestone he has reached this year is his top 100 debut, a feat he first attained after his quarter final run in Atlanta. He has gone on to peak at No. 87, but is currently ranked No. 94 in the world. His progress may not be as rapid as some of his other contemporaries, but he has definitely been on the move, and will hope to keep that up for the rest of the year.
Popyrin has done well to get into the Tokyo main draw, but his reward is a first round meeting with the No. 1 player in the world, and will likely end in defeat.
There’s hope, as Djokovic’s shoulder remains a concern, but I don’t think the top seed will be playing if he doesn’t feel he can manage the problem. The world No. 1 should be far too good for the young Aussie on Tuesday.
Novak Djokovic vs Alexei Popyrin is live from Tokyo on Tuesday, 1 October from 2:00pm local time/ 6:00am