Djokovic overpowers Del Potro as Masters Cup play begins

SHANGHAI, China -- Novak Djokovic fed off the crowd's cheers. For Nikolay Davydenko, a handful of backers was enough.

Djokovic has developed quite a following in China even though he failed to win a set in three matches during his Shanghai debut last year.

Capturing the bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics likely helped, and he generated a huge roar Sunday with a simple "Thank you" in Chinese after starting off Masters Cup round-robin play with a 7-5, 6-3 victory over Argentina's Juan Martin Del Potro.

"I have the best fans here in China," Djokovic said. "I get presents every day I get back to the hotel."

The stoic Davydenko had to overcome Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and the popular Frenchman's vocal fans for a 6-7 (6), 6-4, 7-6 (0) victory in the other Gold group match.

"Sometimes I really enjoy playing not at home," the fifth-ranked Russian said. "I don't think about any pressure. A few guys support me, it's already enough."

While ranked third, Djokovic was a question mark coming into the season-ending tournament for the top eight players. He was exhausted late last year from a heavy schedule in his rise to No. 3, and he lost in the round of 16 in his past two tournaments this year.

"I was a bit intimidated by the fact of not winning a single match last year, that's for sure," Djokovic said. "But this year is different. I feel more confident, stronger player on the court, more mature. ... In important moments, I played my best tennis."

Djokovic broke early for a 3-1 lead. Then his serve and strategy let him down when serving for the first set at 5-3. He double-faulted to give Del Potro break point, then weakly dumped a backhand drop-shot attempt into the net to put the match back on serve.

A tiebreaker loomed. Then Del Potro netted a forehand while serving at 5-6, 30-30. The 20-year-old Argentine, making his Masters Cup debut as the youngest player in the draw, had Djokovic lunging from side to side on the next point only to see the Serb hit a forehand crosscourt winner to take the set.

Del Potro, who jumped to eighth in the rankings from No. 65 on July 7, angrily spiked his racket but recovered to break Djokovic for a 2-1 edge in the second set.

Djokovic broke back in the next game. After Del Potro held to make it 3-3, Djokovic ran off the last three games.

Del Potro, nursing a sore toe since the U.S. Open, was left to lament what might have been.

"When you play against [Rafael] Nadal, [Roger] Federer or Djokovic, you have just one chance or two. I had a break point. I didn't get it."

Tsonga, who lost the Australian Open final to Djokovic in January and later sat out three months with a knee injury, fell behind 0-40 in his first service game before coming back to hold.

The Masters Cup newcomer quickly won over the fans with his easy smile and go-for-broke style, even leaping the net while unsuccessfully trying to track down a drop shot in the first-set tiebreaker.

Tsonga faltered while serving at 4-5 in the second set. He just missed a forehand passing shot to give Davydenko a set point that the Russian converted with a winner that just caught the baseline.

Davydenko raced to a 3-0 lead in the deciding set. Serving at 2-5, Tsonga staved off a match point with a gutsy drop shot winner from the baseline, then broke to get back on serve with another great drop.

On the edge of their seats, the crowd chanted Tsonga's name. But the tiebreaker proved to be anticlimactic as he suddenly lost his touch.

Tsonga gave credit to his opponent.

"It was a tough match," he said. "He was just better than me at the end."

The Red Group, which includes Federer, Andy Murray, Andy Roddick and Gilles Simon, gets into action Monday. Nadal, who already has clinched the No. 1 ranking for the year, withdrew with tendinitis in his right knee, hoping to be ready for Spain's Davis Cup final against Argentina on Nov. 21-23.