LOS ANGELES – Still struggling with jet lag and time zone changes, top-ranked Novak Djokovic of Serbia beat Mardy Fish in an exhibition match at the inaugural Los Angeles Tennis Challenge on Monday night in the American's return to the court after a six-month absence caused by a heart condition.
The event, put together by Fish and retired player Justin Gimelstob, survived a broken net and the lights going out during a doubles match featuring Djokovic and childhood idol Pete Sampras against the top-ranked team of Bob and Mike Bryan at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. The brothers won.
Djokovic won a pro set in a tiebreaker against Fish two days after the Serb won the Dubai Championships and flew to Los Angeles, arriving in time to attend a Lakers game on Sunday night. Fish, who's been off the ATP Tour since September, plans to return to competition at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., starting later this week. Djokovic is headed to the desert, too.
"I like where my game is," said Djokovic, who got the loudest applause from the crowd of 8,500 in the arena that is home to UCLA's basketball team. The fast hard-court surface was installed over the basketball court.
Djokovic won the tiebreaker 7-2 against the 32nd-ranked Fish, who got to test himself against the world's best men's player in a match that didn't affect rankings or points.
"Tonight was a big test for sure to see where I was in a setting with a lot of people," Fish said from a massage table as a therapist stretched him out after the match. "It didn't feel like a U.S. Open match, but it did feel like a lot of people and friends were there. To come through felt pretty good, but I don't feel 100 percent."
Djokovic most enjoyed teaming with Sampras, whom he credits for getting him interested in the sport as a child when he watched Sampras win one of his seven Wimbledon titles.
"It was such a blast to share the court with Pete," Djokovic said. "I always wanted to play a match with him or against him just to share the court with him. All the memories come back to me. He's such a great man off the court."
Sampras has kept a low profile since retiring in 2002. He rarely plays the game that brought him fame and fortune.
"I haven't played in four months. I don't want to embarrass myself," he said. "I actually played OK."
Fish and Gimelstob came up with the idea of staging an exhibition in Los Angeles a year ago after hearing that the city might lose its longtime ATP tournament on the UCLA campus. Indeed, the tournament went away in November, with its ATP sanction sold to Bogota, Colombia.
"If you don't have the players, it's not going to be successful," said Sampras, who made the tournament a success when he often played it along with Andre Agassi and Michael Chang during his career. "This is a name-driven city and they didn't have the names. It was a struggle getting sponsors."
All the players at the exhibition except Djokovic have ties to Los Angeles. Gimelstob, now a Tennis Channel commentator, played collegiately at UCLA, Fish, Haas and Sampras live here, and the Bryan brothers are from nearby Camarillo. Djokovic was playing in LA for the first time.
The opening match between No. 19 Tommy Haas and James Blake was delayed for 20 minutes after Haas' serve broke the net, causing it to sag. The players killed time while it was replaced by partnering for some impromptu mixed doubles with two young girls.
The eight-game pro set was reduced to five games, and it ended with Haas winning 7-5 in a tiebreak after Blake held to tie it at 5-all.
Among the celebs in attendance were Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, actors Bruce Willis, Rainn Wilson, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Ali Larter and Boris Kodjoe, and Dr. Phil. Wilson climbed into the referee's chair to provide comic commentary during the doubles match.