After claiming his 900th singles win – but dropping a rare set in the process – Novak Djokovic continues his Australian Open campaign against Japan’s Tatsuma Ito.
Novak Djokovic vs Tatsuma Ito is live from Melbourne on Wednesday 22 January at 3pm local/4am GMT
Djokovic won the 900th singles match of his career on Monday to open his Australian Open title defense, but it was not without incident as the world no. 2 dropped a set in the first round in Melbourne for the first time since 2006.
So often unassailable on the Rod Laver Arena, with a record seven titles to his name, Djokovic had unusual preparation for this year’s Australian Open, playing the new ATP Cup and leading Serbia to victory by winning all six of his singles matches as well as a couple of doubles matches.
Djokovic’s opponents in singles were of the highest caliber, including Denis Shapovalov, Daniil Mevdedev and world no. 1 Rafael Nadal, and it was no surprise that he withdrew from a scheduled appearance in Adelaide due to fatigue.
I’m not sure it was fatigue that was responsible for the dropped set on Monday, however. Djokovic had the misfortune to draw one of the tougher unseeded opponents in the field, Jan-Lennard Struff, and the big-serving German showcased all of the improvement he has made over the past 12 months, which have seen him play some of the best tennis of his career. Djokovic was up 5-2 when a sloppy service game saw Struff erase the deficit and level at 5-5, with Djokovic finally winning the first set in a tie-break; and while the Serb dominated the second, he suffered a real dip in the third. Struff, given the chance to up the aggression for the first time, took advantage and claimed the third set in impressive fashion.
Djokovic, of course, restored order comprehensively in the fourth set to win 7-6(5), 6-2, 2-6, 6-1, serving 14 aces throughout the match and winning 77% of points behind his first serve (which he landed 65% of the time), despite which he was broken four times.
We should be cautious of reading too much into the dropped set: At last year’s Australian Open, Djokovic dropped sets in the third and fourth rounds to Shapovalov and Medvedev respectively, but by the final he was in such superb form that he played a flawless match to dismantle Nadal. Struff was a tough opponent, and I thought Djokovic was clearly in energy conservation mode, not so much physically as mentally, willing to be a little sloppy by his phenomenally high standards in the cause of getting a fairly relaxed victory (again, by his standards).
‘I actually like tough first rounds, in Grand Slams particularly. Historically I’ve had lots of success in Grand Slams where I had tough opponents in the first round because it gets me going from the beginning. I have to be alert, I have to be at a high level, and I think I was.
‘Of course you can always play better and I expect myself to be better as the tournament progresses, but it was a good matchup and I’m glad how I overcame the challenge.’
That said, I think eyebrows would raise should Djokovic have similar difficulties against his next opponent, Japanese wildcard Tatsuma Ito.
The 31-year-old Ito is making his eleventh appearance at the Australian Open, having lost in qualifying in 2009-11, 2014 and 2018, played on a wildcard into the main draw in 2012, secured main draw entry on merit in 2013 and 2015-16 and successfully qualified in 2019, when he lost to fellow qualifier Dan Evans.
Ito earned this year’s wildcard by winning the Asia-Pacific Wildcard Tournament in December, beating Jason Jung in the final.
Ranked as high as world no. 60 in 2012, Ito has spent the vast majority of the subsequent years outside the top 100 and comes into the Australian Open ranked world no. 146.
Winner of seven Challenger titles – snapping a ten-match losing streak in Challenger titles to claim the most recent, in Kobe in 2018 – Ito made four Challenger semifinals throughout a 38-30 season and successfully qualified for Indian Wells and Zhuhai as well as the Australian Open. But he did not win any of the three main-draw ATP Tour-level matches he won. His last main-draw ATP Tour-level match win came in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in June 2016.
It’s been four years since Ito faced a top-10 player, but he does actually have a win over one: Stan Wawrinka, who he beat at the Japan Open in 2014. Ito was obviously roared on by the home crowd that day and he will be assured of some vocal support in Melbourne, too – but then so will Djokovic. Ito did well to book his place in the second round with a victory over lucky loser Prajnesh Gunneswaran, but it’s very, very difficult to imagine anything other than a sweeping victory for Djokovic over the journeyman.