Novak Djokovic has achieved just about everything there is to achieve in tennis, but he’s pulling off another first this week—he’s playing an ATP event in Israel for the first time in his career at the Tel Aviv Watergen Open, an ATP 250 event.
It’s not his first time playing tour-level matches in Israel, though.
From February 10th to 12th, 2006—sixteen and a half years ago, when he was only 18—Djokovic traveled to Ramat HaSharon for a Davis Cup Europe/Africa Zone first-round tie against home team Israel. It was held on the hard courts of the Canada Stadium.
“One of the best and loudest atmospheres I ever experienced,” Djokovic recalled during his pre-tournament press conference in Tel Aviv this week. “Very passionate people for sports here. It’s great to see that, because I like that kind of passion and love that comes in from the people towards sports.”
And Djokovic rose to the occasion that weekend.
After Janko Tipsarevic won the first rubber against Dudi Sela, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-0, 6-4, Djokovic defeated Noam Okun, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (6), 6-2, to put Serbia ahead 2-0.
Israel then got on the board with a victory in the doubles rubber, as Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram downed Tipsarevic and Ilija Bozoljac, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
But Djokovic sealed the deal in the first reverse singles rubber, storming out to a 6-1, 6-2, 5-2 lead against Sela, and—after Sela battled back to push the third set to a tie-break—cruising to the finish line for a 6-1, 6-2, 7-6 (3) victory.
They played the final rubber anyway, abbreviating it to best-of-three sets, with Tipsarevic edging Okun in a tight two-setter, 7-6 (10), 6-4.
“It’s one thing to know you can do it and another thing to do it,” Serbian captain Dejan Petrovic told reporters afterwards. “The future for Serbian tennis is bright.”
Little did he know just how bright.