Djokovic to face Cilic in Tel Aviv Watergen Open final

Serbian ace beats Russian Roman Safiullin in semis; Croatian Marin Cilic tested by Frenchman Lestienne

 Novak Djokovic booked his place in the final of the Tel Aviv Watergen Open (photo credit: ORI LEWIS)
Novak Djokovic booked his place in the final of the Tel Aviv Watergen Open
(photo credit: ORI LEWIS)

Top-seeded Novak Djokovic booked his place in the final of the Tel Aviv Watergen Open on Saturday night after overcoming his Russian opponent, Roman Safiullin, and will face Croatia's Marin Cilic in Sunday's championship clash for the title at the indoor venue at Expo Tel Aviv.

Djokovic won 6-1, 7-6(3) in an hour and 53 minutes but if the first set appeared as if the match would be a breeze for the world No. 7 and top seed in the tournament, the second was anything but.

Safiullin, ranked 104 in the world, was completely out of touch in the first set and missed many shots that went long or wide, giving Djokovic a false sense of ease as he raced to a 5-0 lead before closing out the set.

But the Russian's game suddenly came together as he found the range on his shots and made his opponent work very hard for every point. It was hard to separate the two as they exchanged some lengthy rallies that had Djokovic on the defensive far more often than he would have liked or would have expected.

Safiulin was the beneficiary of three lucky net cords that went his way much to Djokovic's annoyance and he was broken for 4-3 only for the balance to be redressed immediately. Saffiulin only succumbed in the tie break as the errors crept back into his game and Dokovic breathed a sigh of relief.

 Marin Cilic playing in the Tel Aviv Watergen Open (credit: ORI LEWIS) Marin Cilic playing in the Tel Aviv Watergen Open (credit: ORI LEWIS)

"It was quite emotional on court today, especially in the second set, there was a lot of tension but that's also due to his aggressive style of play," Djokovic said. "It was one of those days when you have to stay mentally tough and hope that you can make it," he added during the on-court interview held immediately afterwards.

"It was quite emotional on court today... it was one of those days when you have to stay mentally tough and hope that you can make it."

Novak Djokovic, Tennis player

The tall Cilic, currently ranked 16 and winner of the US Open title in 2014, tried to use his power game to intimidate his opponent Constant Lestienne, ranked 68, but the diminutive Frenchman used his guile and an array of unconventional shots to push the match favorite all the way.

Cilic came back from 2-5 down in the first set to win it 7-5 and then looked a little more settled in the second, after Lestienne, who received a medical time out to treat an injury just before the end of the set, was less able to disrupt Cilic's power game.

"It was a fantastic match, Constant played amazing tennis... it was a great fight... overall, it was a really, really exciting match," Cilic said afterwards.

The 35-year-old Serbian star has wowed the crowds with his stealth, athleticism and power, with the packed stands of almost 3,000 spectators cheering and applauding his skills generously.

 Roman Safiullin (credit: ORI LEWIS) Roman Safiullin (credit: ORI LEWIS)

Novak Djokovic vs. Vasek Pospisil

On Friday, Djokovic gave the awed crowd full value for their money by overcoming his close friend and rival Vasek Pospisil of Canada 7-6(6), 6-3 to reach the semi-finals.

Djokovic did not have it all his own way in a hard-fought tussle against the tall Canadian of Czech heritage. Pospisil, whose promising career has been hampered by back injuries, is currently ranked 145, but his performance on Friday evening was far better than that and he used his powerful serve and piercing volley to pressure his opponent into playing his very best tennis in order to stay in the running.

The affable Pospisil was a “lucky loser” and was fortunate to even be playing in the tournament after losing in the qualifying event, where he looked severely hampered by injury.

It was one of the best matches in the tournament and had the crowd on their feet several times cheering both players and hoping that the match would continue even longer.

The two held their serves throughout the first set and, even though Djokovic opened up a clear lead in the tiebreaker, Pospisil came right back at him and leveled the scores before the Serb held on to take it in just under an hour.

In the second set, both men traded breaks of serve in the early stages. But as both men battled from all corners of the court with some scintillating rallies, the enthralling tennis saw Djokovic make the crucial breakthrough to seal the win in an hour and 53 minutes. Although Pospisil appeared to suffer some pain, it didn’t affect his passion and commitment to win.

There was little to favor between the two players, with each serving eight aces during the match. After it ended, they embraced at the net. Djokovic then applauded as Pospisil left the court.

“It was a great, positive win,” Djokovic said in his on-court interview. “Vasek is one of my best friends on the tour; we have known each other for many years. It is never easy playing someone you respect so much and like so much, but we are both professionals and wanted to win the match and you can see that.

“I think the level of tennis was really high. Especially toward the end of the first set and the second set. Credit to him for fighting; great to see him back.”

Play on Sunday begins at 4 p.m. with the doubles final that will be contested between top seeds Rohan Bopanna of India and Dutchman Matwe Middelkoop and third-seeded Santiago Gonzalez and of Mexico and Andres Molteni of Argentina. The singles final between Djokovic and Cilic will follow that match.