World number one Novak Djokovic took a significant step towards winning an opening week tournament for the first time in eight years on Wednesday, simultaneously earning himself a meeting with the man with 9,000 aces.

The Serbian’s increasingly fluent performance during a 6-2, 6-1 win over the Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky avoided a potential banana skin against an opponent best known for upsetting Roger Federer at Wimbledon 18 months ago, and it carried him into the quarter-finals of the Qatar Open.

Djokovic was pleased that after saving three break back points in the seventh game, he acquired more rhythm and started dominating an opponent whose penchant for net attacks can be disruptive.

“From that moment on it felt a different match,” Djokovic said. “I felt I was more swinging through the ball on the court and playing more confidently.”

It earned him a meeting with another unusual opponent who can be dangerous in a very different way — the seventh seeded Ivo Karlovic, whose 17 aces during a straight sets win over Nikoloz Basilashvili, a qualifier from Georgia, increased his career total to 9,041.

This is the most aces of any active player and places Karlovic only 33 behind Andy Roddick, the former US Open champion, whose total is the second highest of all time. 

Karlovic’s aim, he says, is to beat the all-time record of 10,183 held by his Croatian compatriot, Goran Ivanisevic.

“How do you think I feel?” said Djokovic, his animated response to the match-up causing laughter. 

“I’m definitely going to try to get some sleep so my reaction tomorrow is quick, because I’m going to need it

“He is one of the best servers ever to play the game. If you serve two or three aces per game, you create a lot of pressure. That’s why it’s very important for me to stay mentally strong and wait for the opportunities, wait for some second serves and hope he will miss some volleys.”

Surprisingly Djokovic also earned another high profile meeting with the man he was supposed to face in Saturday’s singles final, Rafael Nadal.

– Nadal sympathy –

That is because Nadal, who suffered an extraordinary first round defeat to qualifier Michael Berrer on Tuesday, responded by reaching the doubles semi-finals with Juan Monaco of Argentina.

Their 6-2, 3-6, 10-6 win over Benjamin Becker of Germany and Artem Sitak of New Zealand 6-2, 3-6, 10-6 brought a meeting with Djokovic and his compatriot Filip Krajinovic, who overcame the third–seeded Colombian pair, Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah by 6-3, 7-5.

It also created one of those professionally rare occasions when Djokovic felt moved to express sympathy for an opponent before trying to beat him.

“I do look forward to playing doubles against Rafa, of course,” he said.  

“Over 40 times we played in singles, I think, but we played maybe only once or twice in doubles against each other but once together as well in Toronto.

“Regarding his loss against Berrer, it’s obvious he’s still not playing at his highest level, but I think he is setting up his form for the Australian Open.  

“That’s where he wants to perform his best and that’s where he always performs his best, in Grand Slams.

“So it was a surprise, no question about it, but I don’t think that that maybe worries him too much. Considering his absence from the tour and the amount of tournaments he has played in the last five months, it’s not easy to start off really well from the beginning.”

The man most likely to reach the final in the other half may be the winner of the meeting between Richard Gasquet, the sixth seeded Frenchman who won the title in Doha two years ago, and Tomas Berdych, the third-seeded former Wimbledon finalist from the Czech Republic.

Gasquet, who is hoping for better fitness after his disappointing 2014, certainly looked in good shape during a 6-3, 6-2 win over Simone Bolelli, the world number 52 from Italy.

“I think I’m feeling better,” Gasquet said. “I feel no pain in my back. That’s the most important for me, so I need to do the same for tomorrow, to play matches, to build my body back.”

Berdych eased past Blaz Kavcic of Slovenia 6-1, 6-2 while Spanish fourth seed David Ferrer defeated compatriot Fernando Verdasco 6-3, 6-2. – Agence France-Presse

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