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Novak Djokovic


Novak Djokovic can still play tennis. Novak Djokovic can still play tennis very well. Those were the lessons to leave with as the defending champion extended his match-winning streak on the Australian Open’s bright blue courts to 22, thumping Lukas Lacko 6-3 7-6(2) 6-1.

There is no reason to feel that the above wouldn't be the case. Djokovic ended 2013 as strongly as is possible, defeating Rafael Nadal to win the ATP World Tour Finals. The ATPs season-ending event has been one of Djokovic's most successful, one where his shot-making, tenacity and physical condition combine perfectly in an atmosphere that he thrives on. The other? This one right here.

But, with a new year comes new thoughts, new pressures, and, in Djokovic's case, a new coach in Boris Becker. Would a banana skin unwittingly present itself and trip him up?

Categorically no, not in this instance. The world No.2 and four-time champion did what he had to against a player he had never faced before, easing his way into the match, surviving a brief fightback and a tight second set, before upping the ante in the third.

"I was happy with my concentration," Djokovic said. "I thought I was prepared well. Physically I feel great. I'm very motivated obviously to play my best."

Sporting grey and black to Lacko's pink and purple creation, Djokovic saved two break points in the first game before flipping the momentum, and breaking Lacko to lead 3-1 after 14 minutes. He wobbled briefly, giving his serve back, only to snatch Lacko's off him again.

Serving out the set on the 30-minute mark, Becker nodding approvingly from the box, it was so far, so good.

The second set was tighter, the pair blocking each other back onto the baseline, partly because Lacko applied his own pressure, but partly also, by his own admission, because Djokovic was not as aggressive as he would like to be, and fell into error rather too often. When the time came, he remedied that in a tie-break, firing through it for the loss of just a point.

From then on it was largely one-way hitting, Djokovic executing particularly well on his first serve, 84 per cent of them going where they were meant to, and limiting his unforced errors from 17 in the second set to just four in the third.

"I was trying to find the proper, I would say, setting and proper balance and footing in the court," Djokovic said. "It came at the right time, in the tie-break in the second, and the whole third set was great. My service games, most of the games were won comfortably. I won many easy points with the first serves and had a high percentage of the first serves in. That's something that makes me obviously very encouraged for this tournament and for every next match."

There is the sense that anything other than winning this tournament would be a disappointment. Just as there is the sense that the novel presence of Becker, which continues to dominate the Djokovic conversation, can only be a positive. And one which will go beyond Djokovic simply improving his German.

"He has accepted my kind request to speak to me in German as much as he can because I would like to refresh my knowledge. I used to speak it," Djokovic explained, before continuing in a more serious vein.

"He definitely has great observations on my game, on tennis in general. We do speak a lot about different things. We try to get to know each other as much as we can.

"And the understanding is great in the beginning. I did not expect ourselves to understand each other so well right away in the second or third week that we working are with each other.

"So it all goes in the right direction. Hopefully we can go far in this tournament. But it's a long year, obviously. Yes, this tournament right now is our priority and our focus, you know, to do well here. Then we hope to maintain that consistency with a success and good cooperation throughout the whole year."

He was at pains to point out, again, that Marian Vajda was behind the brainwave, and that Vajda will continue to be involved. It is not a case of cutting ties and starting over, as is the case with many coaching relationships. It is a tweak to an existing situation that has been working very well.

"He's also in touch with Boris," Djokovic said. "We are all trying to communicate as much as we can because we're aware that this is one of the keys to success of my career, is the communication between the team members. Everybody is in touch with everybody. Everybody knows what's going on. That's very important."

His next opponent is Leonardo Mayer, another first, but Djokovic seems adamant that it is not worth worrying about the player on the other side of the net.

"It's just really important to focus on my game, you know, and try to do the things that I need to do on the court properly," Djokovic said. "If I do so, I have always good chance to win."

Those chances look very good indeed.

Sunday, 31 August 2014
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