Djokovic wins in return to Indian Wells after 5-year absence; Coco Gauff rallies to avoid early exit

Naomi Osaka, of Japan, celebrates after winning the first set against Liudmila Samsonova, of Russia, at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, Saturday, March 9, 2024, in Indian Wells, Calif. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

Naomi Osaka, of Japan, celebrates after winning the first set against Liudmila Samsonova, of Russia, at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, Saturday, March 9, 2024, in Indian Wells, Calif. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (AP) — Novak Djokovic made a winning return to the desert, beating Aleksandar Vukic 6-2, 5-7, 6-3 on Saturday in his first match at the BNP Paribas Open in five years.

The 24-time Grand Slam singles champion joined Rafael Nadal as the only players to win 400 matches in ATP Masters 1000 series events. The top-ranked Djokovic is a five-time champion at Indian Wells, tied with Roger Federer for most by a male, but hadn’t played in the event since 2019.

Coco Gauff also won — barely — rallying just in time to avoid an early exit by edging Clara Burel 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4).

The U.S. Open women’s champion trailed 4-0 and then 5-2 in the third set of her opening match in the tournament, leaving her a game away from becoming the second top American upset by Burel this year. The No. 47-ranked player from France beat No. 5 Jessica Pegula in the second round of the Australian Open.

The third-seeded Gauff advanced to face Lucia Bronzetti in the third round. The Italian knocked off No. 32 Anhelina Kalinina 6-3, 6-4.

But Pegula was eliminated in the second round again Saturday, with Anna Blinkova of Russia beating her 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

Naomi Osaka knocked out another seeded player, ousting No. 14 Liudmila Samsonova of Russia, 7-5, 6-3. The four-time Grand Slam champion who returned to competition this year after giving birth won the 2018 BNP Paribas title. She will next face No. 24 Elise Mertens.

No. 27 Victoria Azarenka, who won the event twice, was upset by American Caroline Dolehide 7-5, 2-6, 6-3. Emma Raducanu, the 2021 U.S. Open women’s champion, reached the third round when No. 30-seeded Dayana Yastremska had to retire after Raducanu had taken a 4-0 lead.

Djokovic avoided an upset by pulling away from the No. 69-ranked Vukic in the third set of his first match since falling to Jannik Sinner in the semifinals of the Australian Open.

Djokovic won Masters 1000 titles last year at Cincinnati and Paris, but couldn’t play in the first two of the year in Indian Wells and Miami, still prevented at the time from traveling to the U.S. as a foreigner who was not vaccinated against COVID-19.

He won in the desert in 2008 and 2011, then three straight times from 2014-16. The 36-year-old from Serbia is 400-86 in ATP Masters 1000 events. Nadal, who withdrew just before the event, has 406 victories in the nine tournaments at the level below the Grand Slams.

No. 12 Taylor Fritz and No. 28 Cam Norrie, both past champions at Indian Wells, moved into the third round along with No. 13 Grigor Dmitrov. No. 14 Ugo Humbert and No. 21 Adrian Mannarino both advanced, while Arthur Fils, another Frenchman, ousted No. 23 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina 6-3, 6-4.

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AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis

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