Aussie makes Djokovic work for victory at Indian Wells

Rory Carroll |

Australia’s Aleksandar Vukic pushed world No.1 Novak Djokovic to three sets in Indian Wells.
Australia’s Aleksandar Vukic pushed world No.1 Novak Djokovic to three sets in Indian Wells.

Unseeded Australian Aleksandar Vukic has pushed Novak Djokovic to three sets, but the world No.1 held on to win his first match back in Indian Wells after a five-year absence.

Djokovic had not competed at the tournament since 2019,  unable to enter the US because of travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he received a warm welcome from the fans on hand for the 6-2 5-7 6-3 victory on Saturday (Sunday AEDT).

“It certainly does feel like home,” Djokovic said in an on-court interview.

“Five years is a very long time for a tennis player.

“They call this tournament ‘Tennis Paradise’ for a reason. It’s so amazing to be part of it as a player and a fan. There’s a great community, great culture, great love for the sport.”

In his first match since falling in the Australian Open semi-finals to eventual champion Jannik Sinner in January, the top-seeded Serbian looked fresh, breaking serve in the opening game and capturing the first set with an ace.

Aleksandar Vukic (left) and Novak Djokovic
Aleksandar Vukic (left) and Novak Djokovic shake hands after their three-set clash in Indian Wells. (AP PHOTO)

The unseeded Australian found his range with his powerful forehand in the second set and finally broke serve when Djokovic’s backhand up the line narrowly missed its target.

Vukic fended off three break points in the next game for a 3-0 lead, but Djokovic would break back with an exquisite drop-shot volley to break back and hold serve for 3-3.

But Djokovic’s 12th unforced error of the set brought up set points, and Vukic hammered a stunning return winner to send the match to a third set.

In the decider, Djokovic crushed a forehand of his own that Vukic could not put back into play for a break and 3-2 lead he would not relinquish, hitting a lob Vukic could not handle on match point to advance to the third round.

Earlier, American Taylor Fritz put on a serving clinic to beat Alejandro Tabilo 7-6 (7-2) 6-2 in their second-round contest.

The 2022 champion never faced a break point and sent down his 14th ace on match point to beat the Chilean under sunny desert skies before a crowd supporting the San Diego native.

“It’s unreal,” Fritz said after the win.

“I was coming to this tournament as a kid for a long time and this is my favourite stop of the whole year.

“Just to hear the crowd and the support when I walk out is incredible.”

Tabilo served well in the opener, and the tight first set was ultimately settled in a tiebreak where Fritz made the most of his opportunities.

“I got some looks at second serves in the tiebreaker,” Fritz said. “Then in the second set I started finding my rhythm, returning serve a little bit better.”

Canadian Milos Raonic withdrew ahead of his second-round clash with seventh seed Holger Rune because of a calf strain.

The former world No.3 was forced to withdraw from the Australian Open and Rotterdam with injuries in what has been a tough start to the year for the 33-year-old.

Former champion Cameron Norrie, French teenager Arthur Fils and Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov all progressed in straight sets to reach the third round.