Tennis

Djokovic one step closer to Miami Open final with win over Sousa

Novak Djokovic returns a shot during his match with Joao Sousa at the Miami Open at the Tennis Center at Crandon Park on Sunday, March 27, 2016.
Novak Djokovic returns a shot during his match with Joao Sousa at the Miami Open at the Tennis Center at Crandon Park on Sunday, March 27, 2016. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Novak Djokovic caught a high-arching ball in his left pocket during his opening match Friday, delighting the packed Stadium Court audience. There were no trick plays from the world No. 1 on Easter Sunday. Just a routine straight-sets victory in under an hour and a half to get him one step closer to pocketing a sixth Miami Open title.

Djokovic cruised past 33rd seed Joao Sousa of Portugal 6-4, 6-1 in an hour and 18 minutes and advanced to the Round of 16, where he will play Dominic Thiem of Austria. The second set Sunday lasted just 27 minutes, as Djokovic won 92 percent of his first serve points.

“The first set was very close. It could have gone either way. I played well in the right moments,” Djokovic said. “We were lucky to play the last match. It has been tough conditions with the humidity -- very different from Indian Wells.”

The most compelling story of the day was at the Grandstand, where 112th-ranked Argentine Horacio Zeballos continued his run of good fortune. Zeballos, the lucky loser who replaced Roger Federer when he withdrew, reached the fourth round with a hard-fought 1-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) win over Fernando Verdasco that stretched over two and a half hours in the midday heat.

Zeballos had planned to collect his $3,565 check for the qualifying rounds on Friday and fly to Mexico for a Challenger tournament in Leon. Instead, by reaching the Round of 16, he has earned $67,590 and stands to make even more if he can get past 15th-seeded Belgian David Goffin.

The extra cash will come in handy, as his wife, Argentine singer Sofia Menconi, is expecting their first baby – a girl – on April 10.

“Winning that match today was the equivalent of playing seven Challengers in terms of points and winnings,” Zeballos said, smiling. “I’m very happy, a little tired, but very excited to be for the first time in the fourth round of a Masters 1000 tournament, having won two matches against opponents who are higher profile than me. That gives me confidence that I can play at this level and I can keep improving my game.”

The 30-year-old lefty defeated fellow Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, 6-4, 6-4 in his opening match. On Sunday, he saved match point serving at 5-6 in the third set, and hung on for the win.

Zeballos is the fourth lucky loser ever to reach the fourth round in Key Biscayne. The others were Benjamin Becker (2014), Ivan Ljubicic (2001), and Marc Flur (1985).

“In the third set I was feeling tired, I could feel the heat and humidity, but I also felt very motivated to want to win and stay a few more days in this tournament,” Zeballos said. “These wins are very significant because they will help my ranking, and that will help me get into bigger tournaments. The stands were full, it was my first time beating Verdasco, so it was huge for me.”

Zeballos said he got distracted for a few moments during the third set, thinking of his pregnant wife back home in Argentina, hoping she wasn’t nervous for him.

“The other day when I spoke to her when I was playing Delpo (DelPotro), she told me she was so nervous and today was 7-6 third set, so I was worried that she’d get nervous and give birth. It was crazy for me to be having those thoughts during the match.

“But I am enjoying this stage of my life. I am having a great time here, but I also want the baby to be born already and experience that moment of becoming a father. Hoping she can hang on a few more days.”

What if the baby comes while he is still in Miami?

“I would leave if the baby is born. That is a unique moment that would be worth 100,000 finals.”

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