DUBAI // Novak Djokovic appeared a relieved man after resisting the threat of Feliciano Lopez during an enchanting encounter at the Aviation Club to take the match 6-3,2-6, 6-4 and book his place in the quarter-finals of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
Djokovic took the first set relatively comfortably, but Lopez, ranked No 41 in the world and performing impressively at the net, forced his opponent into a series of mistakes to take the second. Djokovic was then forced to muster all his fight to claim the third.
While Djokovic struggled, as he often did last year on his way to the title, top seed and four-time Dubai champion Roger Federer progressed comfortably against another Spaniard, Marcel Granollers, winning 6-3 6-4.
"It was a tough one," said the Australian Open champion, who will now face Florian Mayer of Germany in this afternoon's quarter-finals. "It's good to get through. It was an exciting match, to be honest, even though I was struggling. I don't think I've actually played badly, though. He played really well in the second set."
The match started well-balanced with both players exchanging a couple of big serves, but as the fourth game drew on, a few errors crept into Lopez's performance and, after saving one break point, he double-faulted to fall 3-1 behind.
Djokovic's movement continued to impress and, when he took the first set 6-3, it appeared the 23-year-old was going to close out the match as quick as he did in his earlier round tie with Michael Llodra.
But, instead, his game left him.
While credit must go to Lopez, it was Djokovic who had returned to the court a different - far less convincing - proposition.
An error-strewn second set that saw the Serb produce 18 unforced errors - nine in the first three games - was highlighted by a hideous mistake while 5-2 down and serving at 30-30. Lopez, pulled out wide, hit his return high and the world No 3 waited, just yards from the net, as the ball fell towards him. As he volleyed it downwards though, as is seen on dusty amateur courts around the world, the ball crashed into the net to provide Lopez with a set-point, which the Spaniard duly accepted.
With the thought of missing out on a third straight title in Dubai flickering across his mind, Djokovic improved and broke his opponent in the first game. Lopez later broke back to take the score to 3-3, but Djokovic managed a break immediately after and closed the set out, despite some mammoth rallies - including one that lasted 35 shots.
The victory means Djokovic has yet to lose a match this season and Lopez is of the belief his opponent is the man to beat to beat on Tour.
"He's moving so fast," Lopez said. "Right now, Novak is in better shape than anybody in the world."
In last night's late match, top seed Roger Federer put on a breathtaking display to dispatch Marcel Granollers 6-3, 6-4, booking himself a tie with Sergei Stakhovsky.