Rublev battles back to keep Dubai title defence alive as Djokovic cruises into quarters

Defending champion lost for words after saving five match points, while world No 1 enjoys easy outing

Andrey Rublev celebrates his victory against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships second round. EPA
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Andrey Rublev kept alive his title defence at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Wednesday, but the Russian admitted he has no idea how he managed to win.

Rublev was thoroughly outplayed in the first set by Alejandro Davidovich Fokina and found himself 1-6 down in the second-set tiebreak before mounting a remarkable comeback. The second seed went on a seven-point run while fending off five match points to win the set and later claimed the tiebreak in the decider to seal a hard-fought 1-6, 7-6, 7-6 win in just under two and a half hours.

It was the third time this season Rublev has battled back from the brink of defeat, having saved two match points against Holger Rune at the Australian Open and three against Tallon Griekspoor just last week at the Qatar Open.

"I don't know. This already happened for a third match this season," Rublev, 25, said. "I have no words. These matches, when it's over, and somehow you win them, it's always special.

"One time maybe you feel lucky, you feel super tight and emotional because you almost lose, and somehow you win it. When it happens a third time, you think now there is no chance, it is impossible, now it's over for sure.

"When you're three times lucky, almost last three tournaments – Australian Open, Doha and Dubai – it's like, how many more Christmas presents are there?"

Rublev's reward is a quarter-final meeting with Dutchman Botic van de Zandschulp, a 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 winner over Sweden's Mikael Ymer. Should the world No 6 get past that, an intriguing match against either Alexander Zverev or Lorenzo Sonego awaits.

Zverev, seeded seventh, delivered a much-improved performance from his battling first-round win to defeat Australia's Christopher O'Connell 7-5, 6-4.

The German Olympic champion is making his way back from a long-term ankle injury and will face a stern test in the quarter-finals against Sonego following the Italian's superb 7-6, 6-4 victory against Canadian fourth seed Felix Auger-Aliassime.

But of course, the chief threat to Rublev's title defence lurks at the opposite end of the draw. Novak Djokovic consigned to the past his less-than-stellar first-round display with a much more assertive 6-2, 6-3 win over Griekspoor to extend his perfect start to the year.

It's now 14 straight wins for the world No 1, who is aiming for a hat-trick of titles in 2023 having won the Adelaide International and Australian Open in his first two events.

Djokovic, who this week became the longest-serving world No 1 in tennis history and shares the record of most male grand slam titles with Rafael Nadal, warned that he still has much more to achieve on the court.

"I still have lots of desire to break records," he said. "Every match is different, but that's the beauty of competitive tennis, is that you never know what the next day brings. So you have to figure always out the way by yourself on the court."

Updated: March 01, 2023, 5:57 PM