Determined Daniel Downs Djokovic

Japanese scores biggest win of career

Taro Daniel entered the BNP Paribas Open without a main draw victory in 2018. But all it takes is one signature win to swiftly turn around a player's fortunes.

Behind a bevy of blistering backhands, Daniel claimed the biggest victory of his career, denying five-time champion Novak Djokovic 7-6(3), 4-6, 6-1 in front of a packed Stadium 1 in Indian Wells. The Japanese overturned an 0-7 mark against Top 20 opposition, surging into the third round at an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event for the first time. 

Moreover, Djokovic was handed just his fifth defeat to a player outside the Top 100 of the ATP Rankings in the past decade. The 10th seed was appearing in his second tournament of the year (Round of 16 at the Australian Open) after undergoing a "small medical intervention" on his right elbow last month. He suffered his first opening-round loss in the California desert since his debut in 2006.

"I'd like to congratulate my opponent for fighting and showing great, great spirit on the court," said Djokovic. "For me it felt like first match I ever played on tour. Very weird. I mean, I just completely lost my rhythm. But I was grateful to be out on the court that quickly after surgery."

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Daniel went toe-to-toe with Djokovic as the match wore on, matching the Serbian's aggression. He denied a set point while serving down 2-5 in the opener and immediately broke the former World No. 1 in the next game, firing a backhand winner down the line and a forehand pass off a poor smash. Striking his groundstrokes with conviction and refusing to concede the momentum shift, the Japanese would benefit from 22 unforced errors by Djokovic to snatch the opener in a tie-break. 

Keeping it simple and maintaing a consistent plan of attack, Daniel worked Djokovic from corner to corner. But despite raising his level in the second set and forcing a decider, the Serbian was unable to sustain the sudden shift. Daniel broke midway through the third set and never looked back, closing out his first Top 20 win with aplomb. He advanced after two hours and 30 minutes, firing 20 winners while benefitting from an uncharacteristic 61 unforced errors from Djokovic.

"It was amazing," Daniel told the assembled media following the match. "Warming up this morning, I was thinking that the court is really big. I was actually pretty nervous playing the match. But he obviously wasn't in his top form, so I was able to take advantage of it. And even if I lost the second set, I still had faith I could pull something off in the third. And I was able to stay pretty tough, so I'm pretty proud of that.

"When I broke back in the first set I was thinking that he's not playing well. I can do it. If I really stick to this, I can do it... I felt like I could stick in there and stay calm. In the third set, I regrouped myself. I played the best set of the whole match and that was really good."

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At No. 109 in the ATP Rankings, Daniel scored an impressive win over Mackenzie McDonald in the final round of qualifying and followed that up with a victory over an in-form Cameron Norrie on Friday. It was his first main draw match win since reaching the final at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Canberra, Australia, in October. 

Daniel will next face Leonardo Mayer, who defeated lucky loser Ruben Bemelmans 6-4, 6-1. They previously clashed in the final of the Buenos Aires Challenger last year, with Daniel rallying for a three-set win.

In other action, qualifier Yuki Bhambri continued his strong run of form, securing just his second Top 20 win with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over ninth seed Lucas Pouille. The Indian qualifier is pushing towards a return to the Top 100 of the ATP Rankings after struggling with an elbow injury in 2016 after falling outside the Top 500. He has since reached the quarter-finals at the Citi Open in Washington and hoisted the trophy on home soil at the Pune Challenger in November. Bhambri will face 18th seed Sam Querrey next, after the American bested Mischa Zverev 6-4, 7-5. Querrey will look to match his best result in 13 appearances at the BNP Paribas Open, having previously reached the Round of 16 in both 2011 and 2013.

Earlier in the day, Feliciano Lopez dismissed wild card Ernesto Escobedo 6-4, 6-3 and awaits eighth seed Jack Sock. The 36-year-old Spaniard is making his 16th consecutive appearance in Indian Wells, with his best result coming in 2015 (QF). Sock, meanwhile, is looking to replicate his semi-final showing in Indian Wells from a year ago. He owns a 2-1 FedEx ATP Head2Head advantage over Lopez.

Looking forward to Lopez, Sock, who beat Italy’s Thomas Fabbiano 6-2, 7-5, admitted, “He is always a tricky opponent, 36 years old but moves around like he is 22. He is more unorthodox in today’s game by slicing, chipping and coming into the net a lot. We’ve played each other a few times and a lot in doubles, so we both know each what we want to do out there. I am going to have to play my style of tennis and use my weapons.”

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