As far as tournament debuts go, they don’t get much better than Novak Djokovic’s performance this week in Tokyo.
The World No. 1 won his 76th tour-level title on Sunday, defeating Aussie John Millman 6-3, 6-2 to win the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships. It is the 10th time the Serbian has lifted a trophy on his main draw debut at a tour-level event.
"It was a fantastic week in every sense. I felt great on the court, felt very welcomed by the Japanese people, off the court as well. They made me feel like at home," Djokovic said. "Didn’t drop a set, played really well, served great. Just overall, a great experience."
The top seed arrived in the Japanese capital for his first event since retiring during his fourth-round match at the US Open due to a shoulder injury. But Djokovic showed that he is physically in peak form.
Djokovic did not drop a set at this ATP 500 event, with the closest set, 7-5, coming against home favourite Go Soeda in the second round. In his final three matches, against fifth seed Lucas Pouille, third seed David Goffin and Millman — all of whom have made a Grand Slam quarter-final — Djokovic lost a total of 15 games.
The 32-year-old did not break in his first return game like he did in the quarter-finals and semi-finals. But Djokovic was pretty close, carving a drop shot and then backing it up with a stretch forehand volley into the open court to take a 3-1 lead in the opening set.
Millman got to deuce in his first service game of the second set. But after he powered a forehand long to give Djokovic break point, the Serbian took full advantage. Djokovic hammered away at the Aussie’s backhand wing until he forced an error, and from there it was off to the races.
"The key was to try to fight off the resistance early in the match from his side, because he didn’t have much to lose, playing the final from qualifying," Djokovic said. "He came out and played pretty well, but I made that crucial break and I was serving very well, very efficiently, which allowed me to get a set advantage. After that, I started swinging through the ball, making a bit less errors from the back of the court, which then resulted with a 4-0 lead pretty quickly. That’s a lead I kept all the way until the end.
"It was a straight-sets win, but it’s finals, and playing against a player that really doesn’t have much to lose and hasn’t played too many finals of the big events like this. So of course he’s extra motivated, but I just managed to play well in the most important moments, which has been the case throughout the entire the week and that’s probably something that I’m most happy with."
From the early going there were physical rallies, as both players expected. But Millman did not have enough firepower to break down Djokovic’s defensive walls, and that proved critical, leading to more errors from his racquet and growing confidence from the top seed’s side of the court. Djokovic also served well, losing only four first-serve points (25/29).
"He had a great tournament. Considering he was close to losing in the first round of qualies, to get this far, I think he’ll take it. He’s a great fighter. He started off really solid in the match today," Djokovic said. "We had a tough battle in the first set. [In] the second set I stepped it up, started swinging through the ball even better than the first set. Overall, it was a great tournament for him."
Djokovic put his foot on the pedal with his third service break of the match as Millman hit a backhand into the net. And he never stumbled, finishing off his victory after one hour and nine minutes when Millman missed into the net. The World No. 1 earns 500 ATP Ranking points to claw within 1,460 points of Rafael Nadal in the ATP Race To London, and he also leaves Japan with $391,430 in prize money.
"I think this is definitely a level higher than the past couple of months in terms of my tennis," Djokovic said. "Hopefully I can maintain that in Shanghai, as well."
Millman, a qualifier who saved three match points in the first round of qualifying in Tokyo, was trying to become the fifth Australian to lift the trophy at this event (most recently Nick Kyrgios, 2016) and the first qualifier to emerge victorious on the ATP Tour this season. The 30-year-old, who was pursuing his maiden tour-level crown, takes $196,590 and 300 points.
"It sound silly to say, but I hope everyone all around the world realises just how good you are," Millman said to Djokovic after the match. "You’re an absolute champion and you’re the type of person that’s going to be remembered forever. Your legacy is continuing to build and will live on long after you finish playing. But I’m sure you’ve got a fair few more years left."
Did You Know?
Djokovic now stands alone in third place on the ATP Tour this year with 46 tour-level wins, breaking his tie with Roger Federer. The only players ahead of the World No. 1 are Daniil Medvedev (54) and Rafael Nadal (48).
Photo Credit: Hiroshi Sato