BELGRADE-World number one Novak Djokovic was denied his first title of the year on Sunday, falling in three sets to Russia’s Andrey Rublev in the final of the Serbia Open.

Second seed Rublev won through 6-2, 6-7 (4/7), 6-0 against the top seed who had been looking to regain winning form before his French Open title defence next month. The Serbian missed a chunk of the early season, including the Australian Open as well as ATP Masters 1000 events in Miami and Indian Wells, due to his refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19 - and his lack of match practice showed in the deciding set on Sunday.

The Belgrade event was only Djokovic’s third of 2022 after he was deported from Melbourne – and denied the chance to defend his Australian Open title – after entering the country unvaccinated. However, the 20-time Grand Slam winner was let down by his lack of physical form.

The 34-year-old, who lost in the quarter-finals in Dubai and suffered a shock second-round defeat in Monte Carlo, battled past Laslo Djere, Miomir Kecmanovic and Karen Khachanov in three sets before the court time caught up with the top seed against Rublev. Djokovic got off to a bad start, dropping serve twice, to lose the first set after have an hour.

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Bouyed by the support of the 8,000 crowd, Djokovic fought back in a marathon second set which lasted just over an hour, levelling in the tie-break despite wasting six set points, before running out of steam in the third. Rublev captured his third title of the season, days after blasting Wimbledon’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players as “complete discrimination”.

Wimbledon banned all Russian and Belarusian players from this summer’s Grand Slam tournament due to the invasion of Ukraine. It was a decision condemned by the ATP and WTA as well as a host of players including world number one Novak Djokovic who described the sanction as “crazy”.

Rublev has now equalled Spaniard Rafael Nadal for the most tour-level titles in 2022, having also clinched crowns in Marseille and Dubai in February. “It is big to play against you and share the court for the second time,” Rublev said to Djokovic during the trophy ceremony.

“I hope we have more battles. I feel so great here, it is a very nice city. It feels really special. I want to say a big thanks to all the spectators for supporting all the players all week. To see full crowds again is special for all of us,” Rublev added.

SWIATEK TAKES STUTTGART OPEN FOR FOURTH TITLE OF 2022

Top-ranked Iga Swiatek defeated Aryna Sabalenka 6-2, 6-2 in the final of the Stuttgart Open for her fourth title of the year Sunday. The Polish player stretched her winning run to 23 matches by beating last year’s finalist in her tournament debut in 1 hour, 24 minutes.

Swiatek has won her past seven finals in straight sets. Swiatek previously won in Doha, Indian Wells and Miami. Sabalenka, who lost last year’s final to Ashleigh Barty, defeated second-seeded Paula Badosa in their semifinal Saturday, but the third-seeded Belarusian player had no answer for Swiatek’s power.