On Friday, The Kites and The Hawks made it into the World Tennis League Final after eliminating The Falcons and The Eagles respectively in the last of the round robin ties, played on Day 5 of the new exhibition event.
It’s been probably the most fun three, four days in a row that I’ve had. I’ve had a long career but this is as good as it gets. Playing some good tennis against the best players in the world and having fun, having the best players in the men’s and women’s side, court-side, sharing the bench with them, talking trash all the time, it’s just so much fun. Novak Djokovic
Women’s World No 1 Iga Swiatek led The Kites to the top of the leaderboard with 113 points at the inaugural edition of the team invitational being held at the Coca Cola Arena in Dubai, while The Hawks finished second with 106 points.
Novak Djokovic, returning to match play after disappointing fans by pulling out of his highly-anticipated contest with Nick Kyrgios on Tuesday, managed to beat last-minute substitute Sebastian Ofner on Friday afternoon, but it was not enough to secure The Falcons a spot in the WTL final on Saturday.
The 21-time Grand Slam champion assured he was feeling fit after having not felt well earlier in the week, adding ahead of his match: “Knock on wood, I’m feeling good,” he said
“It’s been probably the most fun three, four days in a row that I’ve had. I’ve had a long career but this is as good as it gets.
“Playing some good tennis against the best players in the world and having fun, having the best players in the men’s and women’s side, court-side, sharing the bench with them, talking trash all the time, it’s just so much fun.”
Kyrgios & Bianca Andreescu gave the Eagles an early 12-10 lead with a 6-4 4-6 [10-7] mixed doubles triumph over Dominic Thiem & Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Team Hawks.
In the women’s singles, reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina from Kazakstan was in fierce form, easing past Caroline Garcia, the World No 4 from France, 7-5 6-1, to get the Hawks back on track.
Alexander Zverev, who beat Djokovic on the opening day, defeated retiring Italian Andreas Seppi, 6-4 6-2, to secure victory for The Hawks.
“I want to win every tournament I play,” said the German afterwards, who has been out for six months with ankle surgery. “That’s my character.
“I don’t go to events just to take part of them. I play when I feel I can win a tournament. The size of the event, Grand Slam or not, will not be the point.”
In the evening tie, Holger Rune & Sania Mirza overcame Grigor Dimitrov & Paula Badosa, 6-2 4-6 [10-5], to put The Kites 12-8 up against The Falcons.
Rune, Denmark’s World No 11, and Indian icon Mirza, cruised through the first set before Dimitrov & Badosa fought back by winning the second to force the match into the decider.
There were light-hearted moments too, with Djokovic caught up in the mixed-doubles action while cheering his team on from the bench when Mirza hit a ball which accidentally struck the World No 5 in the leg and he pretended to collapse to the ground in dramatic fashion.
His teammates rushed over and pretended to revive him as former World doubles No 1 Mirza ran over to apologise and they all laughed it off.
Taking an early lead in the match tiebreak, Rune & Mirza held on to clinch the rubber and set The Kites on the path to victory.
Swiatek followed, and was in a no-nonsense mood as she sprinted to a 6-1 6-3 win over a familiar opponent, World No 5 Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus, to cement The Kites’ lead.
The two had squared off 5 times on tour in 2022, with Swiatek getting the upper hand in 4 of the encounters before Sabalenka snatched their most recent meeting at the WTA Finals last month in Fort Worth, Texas.
This year’s Roland Garros and US Open champion, though, had little trouble breaking Sabalenka 3 times on this occasion to win the opening set.
While they traded breaks twice in the second, Swiatek snagged the final 3 games, including a break to close out the match and extend her team’s lead to 24-12.
“I take this as a new experience to adjust and I’m pretty happy with my game because this match was pretty tight, and there were moments that it could go both ways,” Swiatek said. “So I’m pretty happy that I took my chances in those important moments of the game.”
Although Djokovic salvaged a win for the Falcons in the closing men’s singles rubber, his team still finished bottom of the leaderboard, in 4th place, with a tally of 84 points, 29 adrift of table-toppers Team Kites.
Ofner, an Austrian who achieved a career high ATP singles ranking of No. 126 on 6 May 2019, was not part of The Kites squad earlier in the week, but filled in for Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, who was initially scheduled to face Djokovic but pulled out at the last moment.
Djokovic beat Ofner 6-7(6) 6-0 [10-7] in an entertaining match in which the Serbian earned an early break to take a 3-0 lead in the first set but the Austrian broke back to draw level at 3-3.
Ofner broke for the second time after a double-fault from Djokovic to close out the first set, only for the Serbian to bounce back by breaking 3 times to take a bagel second, which prompted a match tiebreak which he edged past, 10-7.
“Ofner serves well. He is tricky,” said Djokovic, finished his exhibition outing in Dubai with a defeat and a win.
The World Tennis League exhibition uses a unique format where every game won is worth a point, and the winner of each tie is the team that accumulates the most points.
There is also one extra point for every match won, and 5 extra points for every one-day tie won, which together with no-ad scoring and sudden death match breakers adds a different perspective to the traditional game.
The round robin phase complete, the WTL title will be contested on Saturday by The Kites and The Hawks.
Day 5 Results
Hawks d Eagles 40-24
- Nick Kyrgios & Bianca Andreescu (Eagles) d Dominic Thiem & Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (Hawks), 6-4 4-6 [10-7]
- Elena Rybakina (Hawks) d Caroline Garcia (Eagles), 7-5 6-1
- Alexander Zverev (Hawks) d Andreas Seppi (Eagles), 6-4 6-2
Kites d Falcons, 36-26
- Holder Rune & Sania Mirza (Kites) d Grigor Dimitrov & Paula Badosa (Falcons), 6-2 4-5 [10-5]
- Iga Swiatek (Kites) d Aryna Sabalenka (Falcons), 6-1 6-3
- Novak Djokovic (Falcons) d Sebastien Ofner (Kites), 6-7(5) 6-0 [10-7]