Dialled-In Djokovic Seals Tel Aviv Final Spot
Novak Djokovic maintained his perfect week at the Tel Aviv Watergen Open in style on Saturday, when the top-seeded Serbian produced a high-class semi-final showing to see off Roman Safiullin 6-1, 7-6(3) and reach his fourth tour-level final of 2022.
Djokovic dropped just three points behind serve in a near-flawless first-set performance as he stamped his authority early in his maiden ATP Head2Head meeting with the World No. 104. Safiullin raised his level in the second set, finding his range with his powerful groundstrokes to break the top seed when he was serving for the match at 5-4, but Djokovic showed trademark composure in the tie-break to complete his third straight-sets victory of the week in Israel in 95 minutes.
“I think it was a very competitive match, especially in the second set,” said Djokovic. “I must say I was quite emotional on the court today in the second set, there was a lot of tension, and that was also due to his aggressive style of tennis. Big serves, and when he has time, he’s so solid from the forehand and backhand corner.
“I knew that I had to stay very strong, and that he was definitely going to raise his level in the second set, which happened. I was serving for the match and played a couple of loose points, but credit to him for fighting back. It was an enjoyable evening on the court for sure.”
Djokovic’s all-around game proved too hot for Safiullin to handle in the opening set, as his clean and consistent striking from the baseline earned him an immediate 5-0 lead with a double break. Safiullin’s brand of high-risk, high-reward shotmaking was ineffective against the Serbian’s trademark defence and there appeared little that the World No. 104 could do to counter the Djokovic charge.
Yet Safiullin, playing in his second ATP Tour semi-final of the season, recovered well from Djokovic’s first-set blitz and began to show the sort of form that had taken him past Arthur Rinderknech for the loss of just five games in the quarter-finals. The 25-year-old stuck admirably with the top seed in the second set, forcing a tie-break after claiming his first break of the match in the 10th game. He could not maintain his improved level long enough to force a deciding set, however, as Djokovic stayed solid to secure victory.
“In the tie-break he helped me out, he missed a couple of forehands, but I stayed solid and played the right shots at the right time,” said Djokovic. “Of course, in the semi-finals of a tournament you can expect to have a tough opponent that will challenge you to the very last shot, which actually happened today, and I’m just pleased to overcome the challenge.”
Djokovic’s win takes him to his first tour-level hard-court final since his triumph at the 2021 Rolex Paris Masters last November. The 35-year-old will now play for his third tour-level crown of the year in Sunday’s championship match against second seed Marin Cilic, who was a 7-5, 6-3 winner against Constant Lestienne.
Cilic is chasing his maiden Tour title of 2022 in Tel Aviv, where he was under pressure early in his semi-final against World No. 68 Lestienne. The Croatian trailed 2-5 in the first set as the Frenchman produced plenty of entertaining shotmaking for the delighted Tel Aviv crowd, but Cilic found rhythm on his powerful serve and finished the match having won 86 per cent (31/36) of points behind his first delivery.
“It’s always great to win in two [sets], but it was a fantastic match and Constant played amazing tennis," said Cilic after his one-hour, 47-minute win. "It was my first time seeing him play at a tournament and he played amazing tennis, all the credit to him."
Cilic was forced to save two set points en route to turning the first set around, before his greater consistency proved decisive as he reeled off four games in a row to take the second.
“It was a great fight, I have to say,” said Cilic. “First set he was serving for it, and I just managed to stay in there, I kept my focus and served fantastic from that point on, and it was overall a really, really exciting match.”
Cilic will bid for his 21st tour-level crown on Sunday against Djokovic, who leads the Croatian 18-2 in the pair’s ATP Head2Head series.
“It’s always a fantastic challenge to play Novak,” said Cilic. “No matter the tournament, he is always an unbelievable competitor and always gives his incredible best. We first played in  and we’ve known each other since we were 14 years old so it’s going to be another great match, and great for both of us to get in shape for the rest of the season.”