Jiri Vesely seals 'unbelievable' win over Novak Djokovic to reach Dubai semi-finals

Czech qualifier defeats five-time champion in straight sets as Medvedev to become new world No 1

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There are only two active players who hold winning records against Novak Djokovic having played him more than once. Nope, not Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, but Nick Kyrgios and now Jiri Vesely.

The Czech, a former world No 35 but currently ranked outside the top 120, may have beaten Djokovic back in 2016 at the Monte Carlo Masters but he was given little hope of repeating the feat when the pair met in the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships quarter-finals on Thursday evening. The doubters, it turned out, included himself.

"I never thought I would really have a chance against Novak, he's one of the greatest of all time," Vesely said, immediately after his remarkable 6-4, 7-6 victory over the 20-time Grand Slam champion. Asked how much confidence from his previous win over Djokovic he had taken into this match, Vesely simply replied: "Not much."

Granted, Djokovic was below his irrepressible best but Vesely was magnificent, both on the court and in his head; playing inspired tennis and serving bombs while holding his nerve in key moments. That is typically what it takes to bring down the Serb: hope he has a slight off day while the other guy plays out of his skin.

The result may have come as a surprise - and led to major ramifications for the ATP Tour world rankings - but Vesely's performance shouldn't. While Djokovic was bringing the house down on a packed Centre Court during his second-round win over Karen Khachanov on Wednesday, Vesely was quietly taking apart eighth seed Roberto Bautista Agut over on Court One - that after cruising past former US Open champion Marin Cilic in the first round.

In fact, the only time Vesely has dropped sets so far this week was in both rounds of qualifying.

The 28-year-old left-hander set the tone by breaking Djokovic in the opening game of the match, and after the top seed levelled at 2-2, Vesely reclaimed the advantage at 4-3. He then reeled off two solid service games to take the set.

Advantage Vesely but Djokovic has trailed before, and a slow start was never going to ruffle the world No 1. He was still expected to turn the match around and take his place in the semi-finals. Instead, Vesely went toe-to-toe with his fearsome opponent, earning the break and holding serve for a 5-3 lead. Now the upset was on; one more service hold and Vesely would claim one of the biggest wins of his career.

But Djokovic is the greatest clutch player in tennis history for a reason, and sensing Vesely's nerves, he pounced to level at 5-5. The usual script in these circumstances is for the player's shoulders to slump, having missed a golden opportunity to beat the Serb, while Djokovic puffs out his chest and sets about dismantling his opponent's game and spirit.

Clearly Vesely wasn't in the mood to follow that blueprint, and as the set entered a tiebreak, it was the Czech who stamped his authority, taking a 3-0 lead before sealing the victory with a snappy forehand crosscourt winner.

Reaching the Dubai semi-finals will take Vesely back inside the top 100 and he could climb higher still if he advances to the final or wins the whole thing, which in this form, is entirely possible. Back trending in the right direction up the rankings, Vesely can now look ahead with optimism after a 2021 that saw him contract Covid-19 and be involved in a serious car crash, from which he escaped with minor injuries.

"After what I went through the past months, it's unbelievable," Vesely, 28, said to rapturous applause inside Centre Court. "I have so many emotions, it's hard to describe. It's an amazing feeling."

The defeat is be a double blow for Djokovic, who will be replaced at the top of the rankings by Russia's Daniil Medvedev on Monday, bringing to an end 86 consecutive weeks - and a record 361 in total - as the world No 1.

Before Veseley took his place in the last four at the top half of the draw, Thursday's afternoon session decided the semi-finalists for the bottom half, and it will be Andrey Rublev against Hubert Hurkacz.

Rublev, the Russian second seed, fought back to claim a 2-6, 6-3, 6-1 over American Mackenzie McDonald, before Polish fifth seed Hurkacz cruised past Italy's Jannik Sinner 6-3, 6-3.

Updated: February 24, 2022, 6:55 PM
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