SHANGHAI // Novak Djokovic ended his Masters Cup jinx when he beat the Argentine Juan Martin del Potro 7-5, 6-3 in the season-ending tournament's opening round-robin match. Djokovic failed to win a set last year in three matches, citing exhaustion from a heavy schedule in his rise to No. 3 in the world. The Serb also lost in the round of 16 in his past two tournaments and said that he was having trouble finding his rhythm. "I was a bit intimidated by the fact of not winning a single match last year, that's for sure," Djokovic said. "But this year is different. I feel more confident, stronger player on the court, more mature.
"I used maybe a little bit of my experience. In important moments I played my best tennis." Djokovic started strongly, breaking del Potro for a 3-1 lead. Then his serve and strategy let him down when serving for the first set at 5-3. He double-faulted to give del Potro breakpoint, then weakly dumped a backhand drop-shot attempt into the net to put the match back on serve. A tiebreaker loomed until del Potro netted a forehand while serving at 5-6, with the game at 30-30. The Argentine had Djokovic lunging from side to side on the next point only to see the Serb smack a forehand cross-court winner to take the set.
Del Potro, who has jumped to eighth in the rankings from No. 65, angrily spiked his racket but recovered to break Djokovic for a 2-1 edge in the second set. Djokovic broke back in the next game. After del Potro held to make it 3-3, Djokovic secured last three games, then applauded the crowd for their support. "I have the best fans here in China," he said, adding 'Thank you' in Chinese to a huge roar.
Del Potro, who has been nursing a sore toe since the US Open, was left to lament what might have been. "When you play against (Rafael) Nadal, (Roger) Federer or Djokovic, you have just one chance or two. I had a breakpoint. I didn't get it." Russia's Nikolay Davydenko used his devastating ground game to rally past Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France 6-7 (6) 6-4 7-6 (0) in the other Gold group match. Tsonga got off to a shaky start, falling behind 0-40 in his first service game before coming back to hold.
Those turned out to be the only breakpoints in the first set. Tsonga, a newcomer at the Masters Cup like del Potro, quickly won over the fans with his go-for-broke style, even leaping the net while unsuccessfully trying to track down a deft Davydenko drop shot in the tiebreaker. Davydenko fended off two set points while trailing at 4-5, but the Frenchman ripped a service winner to set up his third opportunity.
The Russian had an easy chance to level again, only to hit a high backhand volley into the net. The two players swapped breaks at love in the first two games of the second set, then held serve until Tsonga faltered while serving at 4-5. He narrowly missed a forehand passing shot to give Davydenko a set point which the Russian converted with a winner on the baseline that Tsonga unsuccessfully challenged. That briefly seemed to deflate Tsonga, and Davydenko broke him while racing to a 3-0 lead in deciding third set.
Tsonga staved off a match point with a gutsy drop shot from the baseline that Davydenko could not get back while serving at 2-5. Three forehand errors by Davydenko gave Tsonga triple breakpoint in the next game. The Russian rallied to force deuce, then hit a backhand long to give Tsonga another chance. The Frenchman again came up with a winning drop shot to put the match back on serve and set up the deciding tiebreaker.
It proved to be anticlimactic as Tsonga suddenly lost his touch. He had his only double-fault of the set and dropped the last two points when the previously successful drop shot failed him twice. The first found the net to set up match point, and Davydenko easily got to the second, with Tsonga sending his next shot wide. The Red Group, which includes Federer, Andy Murray, Andy Roddick and Gilles Simon, starts on Monday. Nadal, who already has clinched the No. 1 ranking for the year, is sitting out the tournament with tendinitis in his right knee, hoping to be ready for Spain's Davis Cup final against Argentina on Nov 21-23.