Novak Djokovic eases into Cincinnati 3rd round after opponent retires

Novak Djokovic had a short night in his first singles match in the U.S. since 2021, beating Alejandro Davidovich Fokina on Wednesday in the Western & Southern Open after the Spaniard retired early in the second set because of a lower back injury.

The second-ranked Djokovic won the first set 6-4, then two points into the second set, Davidovich Fokina hunched over in pain following his return and ended the match after 46 minutes.

"Kind of a mixed emotions tonight," Djokovic said. "Really like Alejandro. Get along really well off the court. We train with each other while in Spain. He told me he has a lower back issue that appeared yesterday. It's unfortunate."

Djokovic, 36, lost in doubles Tuesday in his return to the country after missing events because of COVID-19 vaccine restrictions.

It's his first appearance in Cincinnati since 2019. The 2020 Western & Southern Open was played in New York because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was Djokovic's first singles match since losing to Carlos Alcaraz in the Wimbledon final. Djokovic, who has seen fans pack into his practice sessions, could be on a collision course with Alcaraz at the US Open tuneup.

"Obviously, playing one set is better than not playing or losing," Djokovic said. "I have another chance tomorrow. Kind of shaking off the rust."

The winner of a men's-record 23 Grand Slam singles titles, Djokovic will face Frenchman Gael Monfils, who is 0-18 lifetime against him, on Thursday. Monfils beat Alex de Minaur in straight sets earlier in the day.

"He's an amazing guy, someone I truly respect and like a lot as a person," Djokovic said of Monfils. "He brings so much joy to the fans, so much entertainment. He's one of the most charismatic players we've had in the last two decades on tour, and he's playing better than ever."

Fourth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas, who has lost in the semifinals in Cincinnati three straight years, got past American Ben Shelton in straight sets 7-6 (3), 7-6 (2).

"With players like this, they really have nothing to lose," Tsitsipas said. "He's still spiritually free on the court. He's playing the game careless, just like I did when I first started."

The Masters 1000 tournament has been played in Cincinnati since 1899 and is the oldest pro tournament still in the same city. Its future is in doubt, with a possible move to Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2026.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.