Indian Wells: Doubt is a distant memory for Novak Djokovic as the world number one returns to Indian Wells on top of the tennis world, one year after his shock loss to qualifier Taro Daniel.
Djokovic is making his first start since winning his third Grand Slam title on the trot at the Australian Open in January.
He said he wasn’t fully recovered from elbow surgery when he opted to compete in the California desert last year, but it’s not a decision he regrets given the events that followed in 2018.
“I definitely wasn’t ready to compete at this level last year,” the Serb said Thursday as he looked forward to his title defense in the elite Masters series event.
“I was kind of convincing myself that I was, but I truly wasn’t.
“I know most of my team members at the time were against me playing in Indian Wells and Miami because it was too early after the surgery.
“I could have, should have made a different decision, but I believe it also taught me some valuable lessons that helped me to create amazing results in the next seven, eight months and get from 22 in the world to No. 1 in the world in less than six months.”
Djokovic would cement his return with a Wimbledon title and follow that with a US Open crown.
He dominated Rafael Nadal in January’s Australian Open title and must be favored for a sixth Indian Wells crown — which would see him break the record he currently shares with fourth-seeded Roger Federer.
Djokovic will open in the second round against 128th-ranked American Bjorn Fratangelo, who beat fellow qualifier Elias Ymer of Sweden 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.
He could face a dangerous third-round clash with Australian Nick Kyrgios, seeded 31st, who is coming off his first title in more than a year in Acapulco last week.
Kyrgios will take on Philipp Kohlschreiber in the second round after the German veteran dispatched France’s Pierre-Hugues Herbert 6-4, 6-0.
Kyrgios in form
The Australian beat Nadal, former world number three Stan Wawrkina, ninth-ranked John Isner and number three Alexander Zverev on route the title in Mexico. He also holds a 2-0 career record against Djokovic, including a straight-sets victory over the Serb star in Indian Wells two years ago.
“If I get a chance to play against him … I’ll look forward to that because he’s in-form,” Djokovic said. “On the other hand, I started the season very well.
In other first-round matches Thursday American Sam Querrey defeated Italian Matteo Berrettini 7-6 (7/5), 2-6, 6-4 to line up a meeting with 13th-seeded Milos Raonic — a rematch of their quarter-final here last year won by the Canadian.
Veteran Ivo Karlovic defeated Australian Matthew Ebden 7-6 (7/3), 7-6 (7/3) to line up an all-Croatian clash with 11th-seeded Borna Coric.
Canadian 18-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime, ranked 58th in the world, defeated Britain’s Cameron Norrie 6-3, 6-2 to book a meeting with rising Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Venus outlasts Petkovic
Former world number one Venus Williams emerged from a back-and-forth battle with a 6-4, 0-6, 6-3 victory over German Andrea Petkovic to reach the second round at Indian Wells on Thursday.
The US veteran said she wasn’t feeling her best, and was at a loss for words to explain the win.
“I don’t know honestly. I’m still trying to figure it out,” said Williams, who closed out the first set after a visit from the trainer, before Petkovic had the second set all her own way.
Williams was broken as she served for the match at 5-2 in the third, wasting one match point.
Petkovic had a game point to extend the match before Williams broke her in the final game seal the victory.
France’s Kristina Mladenovic booked her second meeting in three weeks with world number one Naomi Osaka, beating China’s Zheng Saisai 7-5, 6-2 to reach the second round.
“It’s pretty funny, playing her back-to-back,” said Mladenovic, who toppled Osaka in Dubai in the Japanese star’s first match since winning the Australian Open.
“It’s going to be a brand new match,” Mladenovic said. “I’m sure her game suits well here as the defending champion, and I’m sure she wants to build on some wins again. I’m going to go out there confident, show a fight, and execute as well as I did a few weeks ago.”
Naomi Osaka, whose meteoritic rise to the top of the tennis world over the past year has included two Grand Slam titles and the world number one ranking, on Thursday said the newly unveiled Barbie in her likeness was another big honour.
The 21-year-old told reporters she played with the famous Mattel dolls as a child and was proud to be part of the company’s 60th anniversary campaign, which includes a more racially diverse set of figurines.
“Having that chance to represent people that might not think that they could be represented, that’s a really important goal of mine,” said Osaka, who is the daughter of a Haitian father and a Japanese mother.
Osaka said seeing herself in doll form was also a reminder of how much her life has changed since she won the BNP Paribas Open a year ago to kick off her incredible run.