By JOHN PYE
AP Sports Writer
SYDNEY (AP) — It took some on-the-spot shot-making genius to get captains and players from both teams applauding, and to separate Novak Djokovic from Daniil Medvedev in the deciding third set of a victory that earned Serbia a spot in the ATP Cup final.
Second-ranked Djokovic dominated the first set Saturday, devising a plan to break down the big Russian’s strengths, before Medvedev rallied to level the match.
Djokovic got the pivotal break in a long fifth game after a protracted rally ended in an exchange of volleys and drop shots. He raised both arms to celebrate, almost an early victory.
But Medvedev pushed him to the end, forcing Djokovic to produce some of his best tennis as he served for the match. The seven-time Australian Open champion saved a break point with some desperation — lunging to reach a volley, scrambling to get to a drop shot and then coming up with a makeshift forehand as he stretched back to get to deuce again.
It was the point that had the crowd and teammates of both players on their feet.
After saving three break points in the last game, Djokovic completed a 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 victory to secure Serbia’s semifinal win over Russia. They’ll meet either Davis Cup champion Spain or host Australia in Sunday’s final, the first in this new 24-team international event.
“Exciting, exhausting, joyful, dreadful all at once,” Djokovic said when asked for his summation. “It was a lot of rallies and it was very exhausting. Very physical battle, but also mental battle … some amazing points.
“Definitely one of the most exciting matches I’ve played against him or any of the top players in the last few years.”
Dusan Lajovic beat Karen Khachanov 7-5, 7-6 (1) in the opening singles, clinching the first set with the only break-point chance of the match, and allowing Djokovic some breathing room in the second singles encounter. Serbia also won the doubles to complete a 3-0 sweep.
The Djokovic-Medvedev match was the first between two top 5 players at the tournament, and Djokovic raised his game in the first set, which he wrapped up in a half-hour.
After missing a breakpoint chance in the second game, Djokovic went on a six-game roll to go up a set and a break. The vocal, pro-Serbia crowd sang and chanted “Nole, Nole, Nole” and hooted, hollered and whistled.
Djokovic tried to keep the tall Russian moving, drawing him to the net with drop shots and slice and passing him with winners.
But Medvedev worked out a way to counter it and won four games straight. starting by breaking Djokovic in a game that lasted more than 10 minutes and which he finally converted on his fourth break-point chance. Now he was making Djokovic get into long, baseline rallies.
Medvedev had won their previous two meetings and was 2-3 in career head-to-heads, reached the U.S. Open final last year, and wasn’t about to give up a spot in the final without a fight.
Djokovic was showing signs of fatigue, hunching over and burying his face in a towel to get his breath back after losing a 31-shot rally. He got back on level terms but, serving to stay in the set in the 12th game, he netted a tired looking forehand, served a double-fault to give Medvedev a set point.
Fifth-ranked Medvedev, who led the tour with 59 overall wins last season, went 3-0 in the group stage in Perth and then fended off Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman in a tempestuous quarterfinal win in Sydney, when he twice hit the umpire’s chair with his racket during a verbal exchange.
He got the day off Friday, relaxing while Djokovic had to work hard for a comeback win over Canada’s Denis Shapovalov.
That helped set up a dramatic third set, and both players delivered. Russia captain Marat Safin had boldly predicted his team would wrap up the semifinal by winning both singles. Instead, it was Serbia that achieved that goal. After some high-quality matches in 10 days at the ATP Cup, Djokovic decided to withdraw from the Australian Open tuneup tournament in Adelaide next week.
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