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By Richard Pagliaro | Saturday, May 29, 2021


World No. 1 Novak Djokovic defeated qualifier Alex Molcan 6-4, 6-3 for his 83rd career title on his homecourt in Belgrade.

Photo credit: Internazionali BNL d'Italia

On his namesake court, Novak Djokovic branded his third Belgrade championship.

The top-seeded Serbian celebrated a happy homecoming—and gave himself some match fuel for the French Open—topping tricky lefty qualifier Alex Molcan 6-4, 6-3 to capture his 83rd career championship at his hometown Belgrade Open.

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Down a break twice in the opening set, Djokovic served more freely in the second set and showed the full-shot spectrum breaking six times in a one hour, 29-minute triumph and celebrated blowing kisses to his kids.

Djokovic is fifth on the all-time ATP title list behind Jimmy Connors (109), Roger Federer (103), Ivan Lendl (94) and rival Rafael Nadal (88).

The Australian Open champion improved to 20-3 on the season, including winning eight of his last nine clay-court matches as he aims to dethrone reigning Roland Garros champion Nadal and win his 19th career Grand Slam championship in Paris. If Djokovic does it, he will reach another career milestone in winning all four Grand Slams at least twice while denying Nadal's quest to win his 21st Grand Slam crown and break the men's mark he shares with Roger Federer.

Djokovic sure knows how to throw homecoming parties.

The Belgrade-born baseliner raised his third Belgade title a decade after he won the 2011 title and 10 and a half years after Djokovic and buddy Viktor Troicki led Serbia to its first Davis Cup championship in dramatic fashion with a 3-2 win over France in Belgrade.

The 34-year-old Djokovic, Troicki, Janko Tipsarevic and Nenad Zimonjic are among several Serbian stars who continue to promote the sport and encourage participation among Serbian kids. That's one reason why Djokovic took the unusual step of playing this final the day before Roland Garros starts. Obviously, the fact the Belgrade Open is a family affair—Djokovic's brother is tournament director and the event is staged at The Novak Tennis Center—is another.

While Djokovic took the court as a massive favorite against the world No. 255 just five days after Molcan earned his first Tour-level victory, the flip side is the immense stress the Serbian faced playing his 119th career final on his home court before home fans.

   Credit Molcan, who is quick around the court, displays fine footwork and feel and can crack the two-handed backhand down the line, for making this a tighter match than the scoreline suggests.

The left-handed Molcan showed no trace of nerves at the start of his first final winning six of the first seven points and breaking in the opening game with a fine forehand winner down the line.

Djokovic responded immediately. The top seed deployed the drop shot to help break back and burst through a love hold for 2-1.

Molcan showed his drop-shot mastery burning the Serbian with a couple of droppers earning double break point in the fifth game. When Djokovic tried the surprise serve-and-volley, Molcan was waiting and banged a backhand pass breaking for the second time for 3-2.

 Reading the Slovakian's drop shot, Djokovic streaked up to ball quickly and snapped a forehand winner breaking back in the sixth game.

The 5'10" Molcan hung tough through the first six games though his service games were battles. Driving his backhand with authority, Djokovic applied his variation, scoring his third break for 5-3.

Still Molcan, who permitted just two games sweeping Fernando Verdasco earlier in the week, did not flinch in baseline rallies. Molcan broke right back on a netted drop shot then stepped up to serve at 4-5.

The break-spree continued as Djokovic, who had botched an overhead to drop serve in the opening game, thumped a smash with conviction to score his fourth break and take the opening set in 45 minutes.

Both men struggled to defend the second serve—Djokovic won five points on his second serve, Molcan managed just three points on his second delivery—in a set that saw the pair combined for seven service breaks.

Stepping into the court, Djokovic lashed a diagonal forehand winner capping a strong love hold kissing the cross around his neck for a 3-2 second-set lead.

Suffocating defense helped Djokovic carve out the opening break of the second set. Fending off everything Molcan threw at him—from drop shots to lobs to drives—Djokovic drew an error and waved his arms in the air exhorting his home fans to make more noise. Energized by the crowd response, Djokovic rallied from love-40 down to break for 4-2.

  An exciting aspect of Molcan's game is his skill flattening out backhandstrikes—and his knack for hitting behind his opponent at the right time. The world No. 255 kept tacking his cracks, crunching his two-handed backhand to break back in the seventh game.

A gritty Molcan slid an ace down the middle to save a break point in the eighth game, but Djokovic jumped all over a mid-court forehand firing a winner in the corner for a second break point.

Putting the Serbian on the stretch, Molcan hit the rare fake smash-drop shot. Djokovic scrambled to the shot giving the Slovak an easy volley, but Molcan pushed it wide and dropped his Wilson blade in disgust after donating serve and a 5-3 lead.

A sweeping forehand swing volley gave Djokovic triple championship point. On his second championship point, Djokovic wrapped his third career Belgrade title when the qualifier netted one final shot.

As he's done all week, Djokovic gave his opponent a gracious greeting at net.

Now, Djokovic will try to embrace the challenge of winning this title days before he opens play in Paris with precious tennis history hanging in the balance.


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