Doha, Qatar: World number one Novak Djokovic took a significant step towards winning a tournament in the opening week of the season for the first time in eight years when he brushed aside the challenge of Sergiy Stakhovsky.
The Serbian's 6-2, 6-1 win over the Ukrainian carried him to the quarter-finals of the Qatar Open and enabled him to avoid a potential banana skin, especially in the aftermath of the illness which almost prevented him competing, Stakhovsky, who likes to attack the net much more than is fashionable these days, is unusually dangerous when the adrenaline is flowing, and is best known for his upset of Roger Federer at Wimbledon 18 months ago.
On Wednesday though there were only brief moments when something like that seemed possible -- in the seventh game when Stakhovsky earned three break back points and might have pulled the first set back to parity. But Djokovic played all three of them with excellent focus and nicely controlled aggression, and after this mini-crisis was over, he took encouragement and became twice the player.
"I have never played here before but I shall definitely be coming back next year," said the man who is playing in the first week of the ATP World Tour for only the third time. "And I'm feeling better." That medical news is probably the most important piece of progress for the man who has won the Australian Open four times and very much wants to win the title back this month after his shock loss to Stan Wawrinka in last year's quarter-finals.
Djokovic's performance was not perfect. Several times he turned his head away in irritation after mistiming with his ground strokes. But he always rectified the damage, and often dealt with Stakhovsky's net rushes with calmly venomous counter-punching, making volleying a hazardous business.
By the second set his confidence was growing and by the fourth game the outcome was no longer in doubt. Djokovic held for 4-1 with two aces and returned serve well enough in the following game to pressure Stakhovsky into self-destructive ground stroke errors. He ended with first service statistics showing that he had landed 66 percent of them in court, winning 85 percent of the points when he did. His capacity to do that made him formidably solid once he was in front.
Djokovic finished with an imperious drive volley, a big smile, and some words in Serbian to a group of flag-waving supporters which brought a raucous response. He next plays the seventh seed, Ivo Karlovic, whose 17 aces in a straight sets win over Nikoloz Basilashvili, a qualifier from Georgia, carried him to a career total of 9,041.
That is not only the most aces of any active player but Karlovic is now a mere 33 behind Andy Roddick, the former US Open champion whose total is the second highest of all time. For Karlovic to overtake that this week may be asking a little too much, but achieving it this month looks very possible.
The greatest ace cruncher of all time is Karlovic's Croatian compatriot Goran Ivanisevic, the former Wimbledon champion, with 10,183. "It's my ambition to overtake Goran before I retire," the 35-year-old said, grinning broadly.