World No 5 Novak Djokovic made his World Tennis League debut on Tuesday in Dubai but could not lead his Falcons team to victory as he lost his singles match 6-3, 6-4 to Alexander Zverev.
In a format where every game counts across all three matches played, the Hawks defeated the Falcons 35-27, thanks to wins from Elena Rybakina and Zverev in their respective singles clashes.
Djokovic, who arrived late in Dubai after attending the World Cup final in Qatar on Sunday, broke back early in the second set after trailing by a set and a break but could not halt Zverev, who has recovered from an ankle injury that has sidelined him since Roland Garros last June.
“The atmosphere was amazing, I’ve missed being on court, I’ve missed playing in front of this kind of crowd, in these stadiums,” said Zverev on court.
“I knew I had to play the best tennis I’ve played in the last seven months, which is not that difficult, but I’m happy to get my first win in a long time.”
Also back from injury is Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who made a surprise appearance on Tuesday, replacing Anett Kontaveit on the Hawks roster. The former Roland Garros runner-up had an extended break from competition to recover from a knee problem and hasn’t played a match on tour since Rome last May.
In mixed doubles, Pavlyuchenkova and ex-US Open champion Dominic Thiem fell to Falcons duo Grigor Dimitrov and Paula Badosa 5-7, 6-3, 10-4.
Djokovic was on the Falcons bench throughout the encounter, offering all sorts of support, from giving his teammates tips to offering them snacks.
“We’re having fun, enjoying, and at the same time competing. It’s a good opportunity for us, it’s an amazing chance to share moments with Novak, learning from him as well,” said Badosa after the win.
Aryna Sabalenka wasted no time in her showdown with Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, the Belarusian delivering an opening-set bagel to give the Falcons a 19-10 advantage over their opponents.
Rybakina responded with gusto though, benefiting from a string of Sabalenka double faults to level the match and force a deciding super-tiebreak.
The fifth-ranked Sabalenka took the first two points of the breaker but it was Rybakina who carved an opening and the Kazakhstani player sealed the victory 0-6, 6-1, 10-6 on yet another double fault from her opponent.
“It was an interesting experience actually. I was trying to understand if we should go serious or we have to have fun and all this stuff. It was a nice experience. Interesting colour of the court actually,” said Sabalenka, referring to the orange shade of the court that has made it hard for TV viewers, spectators and even players to see the yellow ball during play.
“You can see the ball but you have to be really focused, that’s why you’re losing a little bit of your focus because you’re trying to look so hard at the ball. But it was nice and fun.”
A blockbuster day awaits on Wednesday as Djokovic is set to take on Nick Kyrgios in a rematch of their Wimbledon final from last summer.
Kyrgios’ Eagles lost their opener against the Kites on Day 1 and will be looking to gain ground in the competition. R&B singer Ne-Yo will close out the night with a performance.