Novak Djokovic vs Steve Johnson: Cincinnati Masters first round preview and prediction

RealSport preview the clash between five-time finalist Novak Djokovic and Steve Johnson of the US in the first round in Cincinnati.

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(Photo credit: Marianne Bevis)

Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic will begin his 12th campaign for the Cincinnati Masters title against Steve Johnson. It is the only one of the nine Masters 1000 titles he is yet to win, though he has made five finals, and should he do so he would complete the unprecedented Career Golden Masters. Johnson, meanwhile, has long played his best tennis on home soil and will be eager to claim the biggest scalp of his career. But who will come out on top?

History

Surprisingly, despite both having been competing on the main Tour for some years, this will be the first meeting between the two. In terms of experience, Djokovic has the edge, with 69 titles to his name and a career record of 810-172. But Johnson has compiled some respectable numbers, with four titles so far in his career and a record of 144-132. But, he does only have three top ten wins in his career although one did come in Cincinnati two years ago.

Last time out

Djokovic arrived in Toronto for the Canadian Open after the better part of a month away from the Tour after winning his 13th Major title at Wimbledon. He played great tennis in SW19, particularly in outlasting Nadal 6-4 3-6 7-6 3-6 10-8 in the semifinals, but his level was nowhere near that high in Canada. He played passably to beat Mirza Basic 6-3 7-6 in the first round and Peter Polansky 6-3 6-4 in the second, but Stefanos Tsitsipas ousted him 6-3 6-7 6-3 in the third round.

Johnson returned to grass court action almost immediately after Wimbledon’s conclusion in Newport where he won the title, beating Ramkumar Ramanathan in the final. But he has not managed to maintain that level of success on the hard courts. He lost first round in Washington to Alex De Minaur, the second time this year the Australian teenager has beaten him, before falling to the in-form Fabio Fognini in Toronto, also in the first round.

How do they match up?

Nick Bollettieri considers Novak Djokovic the most complete player of all-time and not without reason. The Serbian is a good server, comfortable going on the attack with both his forehand and backhand, relentless in defence and is surely the greatest returner the sport has ever seen. But, in Toronto he did seem rather laboured. His groundstrokes were short of penetration and his serve was slow. His return was also misfiring badly, particularly against Tsitsipas.

He will need to be sharper against Johnson, who has real weapons in his serve and forehand. The American also covers the court impressively although he has nothing like Djokovic’s ability with the ball at the end of his range. He also has a glaring weakness in his backhand. He slices the ball well off that wing but struggles to come over it at all, even when given time. That leaves him with a badly-lopsided offence and has held him back throughout his career.

Prediction

Djokovic’s performances in Toronto were at best sub-standard, even in the matches he won. And whilst that’s no reason to be concerned about the bigger picture, it does make him seem like something of a longshot for the title in Cincinnati. But even so, he should have too much for Johnson. The American can’t match Djokovic from the baseline and even though he’ll get some winners by him, one suspects it will be Djokovic doing the actual winning. Djokovic in two.

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