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Doubles defeat doesn’t dent Djokovic’s comeback

Rakuten Open - Day 1

TOKYO, JAPAN - SEPTEMBER 30: Novak Djokovic of Serbia poses for photographs on day one of the Rakuten Open at the Ariake Coliseum on September 30, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)

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TOKYO -- Novak Djokovic’s return from injury had a stuttering start at the Japan Open, with defeat Monday in the opening round of doubles.

Yet for the No. 1-ranked Djokovic, playing at the tournament for the first time, the result was less important than emerging from the match unscathed.

Djokovic had not played since retiring with an injured left shoulder in his U.S. Open fourth-round match against Stan Wawrinka, who was leading 6-4, 7-5, 2-1.

The fourth-seeded pair of Mate Pavic and Bruno Soares beat a rusty Djokovic and Filip Krajinovic 6-2, 4-6, 10-4 in sweltering heat on the Colosseum show court at a revamped Ariake Tennis Forest Park. The venue will stage the Olympic tennis tournament next year.

“One of the reasons for playing the doubles was that I wanted to see how the shoulder feels during match play,” Djokovic said. “Obviously, doubles is quite different from singles, but you’re still playing an official match - you still get the nerves, and have to battle on court.

“There was a lot of serving and returning, slow balls and fast balls, but it seems like my shoulder is fine after that, so I’m hoping that’s going to be the case for the singles.”

Djokovic said it was good to play in Tokyo, “because I want to win the Olympic Games next year.”

“I can get a feel for the court and the conditions, but the tournament will be played a bit earlier than this, at an even warmer time and higher humidity - you have to mentally accept that and then prepare yourself,” he said. “Hopefully I can come here early for the Olympic tournament and fully prepare myself.”

Djokovic kicks off his singles campaign on Tuesday against Australia’s Alexei Popyrin and - if successful - will meet local wildcard entry Go Soeda in the second round. The 133rd-ranked Soeda upset Jan-Lennard Struff 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3.

Marin Cilic also advanced to the second round and will face either Italian Lorenzo Sonego or South Korean Hyeon Chung. Cilic defeated Japanese wild card Yuichi Sugita 6-4, 6-4.

Like Djokovic, Cilic also has not played since the US Open, where he lost to Rafael Nadal in the last 16. This was a welcome win for the Croatian who has slumped 27 places from the career-high No. 3 rank that he occupied in January last year.

“It can be that, when you have a break, you come to a tournament fresh but actually you are not match fit, a little bit rusty, but this far into the season it feels good,” Cilic said.

“In a way it’s been a little bit of a new experience this year,” he said. “I was training hard, trying to push myself the same as the last few seasons - I wasn’t doing much different, but I wasn’t following up with the results, and I’ve just felt more drained and fatigued.”

Fifth-seeded Lucas Pouille advanced to the second round with a 6-4, 6-3 win over Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz. Pouille will face Yoshihito Nishioka, who defeated Joao Sousa 7-5, 6-3.