Gutsy Kovalik douses Cilic fire

Slovakian stuns top seed; Paes-Sa out in first round

Gutsy Kovalik douses  Cilic fire
Little known Jozef Kovalik caused the biggest upset of the Chennai Open as he knocked out world number six and tournament-favourite Marin Cilic in a gripping pre-quarterfinal here on Wednesday. Kovalik, ranked 117, showed nerves of steel in a hard-earned 7-6 (5), 5-7, 7-5 win over the ‘rusty’ top seed.

Cilic, who ended the 2016 season with a career-best rank of six, was pushed by the Slovakian in two hours and 48 minute match and was rewarded with the biggest win of his career. Kovalik next faces Daniil Medvedev, who shocked eighth seed Yen-Hsun Lu 6-4, 6-3 in his second round.

Cilic looked a bit rusty at the start as it took him almost 10 minutes to hold the first service game in which he saved a breakpoint and fought off five deuce points. He eventually sealed it with an ace. Kovalik impressed with his ground-strokes, specially backhand, retrieving ability and the court coverage. He managed to stretch points by engaging Cilic in rallies. The tall Croat started to serve better, losing only five points in his next five service games.

Kovalik had handed an opening to Cilic with a double fault at 2-2 but the Croat netted a backhand on next point to let go advantage. The world number six hit a forehand long at 4-5 to hand the Slovakian two set points. Stunned by the reversal, the Croat put his foot on the gas and raced to a 3-0 lead with a break in the second game. After a foot fault call at 15-15, which perhaps disturbed his rhythm, Kovalik hit a forehand long at 30-40 to face a break point.

Cilic played smart and pinned the Slovakian on the far left side of the baseline in a long rally and sent down a volley winner from a weak backhand return to seal the break. Kovalik prevented Cilic from walking away with a 5-1 lead by saving two breakpoints in the sixth game.  Not only this, he broke Cilic back in the seventh and made it 4-4 with an easy hold in the next game.

The Slovakian though choked when he was serving to stay in the match at 5-6. He sent a backhand to net to hand Cilic his first set point and followed that with a long forehand to allow the Croat make a comeback in the match. The third set was again neck and neck before Kovalik cashed in on unforced errors from Cilic to get a break in the 11th game, setting himself up to close the match in his favour.

However, there was more drama to the match with Kovalik facing three breakpoints but Cilic could convert none. Eventually the Slovak converted his first match point. In another second match of the day, Spaniard Albert Ramos-Vinolas outplayed Steve Darcis 6-2, 6-0.

In the doubles segment, India’s Leander Paes and his Brazilian partner André Sá were ousted in the in the opening round of the event. The Indo-Brazilian pair bowed out to the all-Indian pair of Purav Raja and Divij Sharan 6-4, 6-4. Meanwhile, Rohan Bopanna and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan got their campaign to a winning start with a comfortable 6-4, 6-4 victory over Brazil’s Marcelo Demoliner and Nikola Mektic of Croatia.

Results (prefix denote seedings): Men's singles, round 2: Dudi Sela (Israel) bt Chung Hyeon (South Korea) 6-2, 6-2; Jozef Kovalik (Slovakia) bt 1-Marin Cilic (Croatia) 7-6 (5), 5-7, 7-5; Daniil Medvedev (Russia) bt 8-Lu Yen-Hsun (Taiwan) 6-4, 6-3; 3-Albert Ramos (Spain) bt Steve Darcis (Belgium) 6-2, 6-0.
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