Djokovic out to resume normal service in Melbourne

Martyn Herman
·3-min read
ATP Cup

By Martyn Herman

(Reuters) - Even in these tumultuous and uncertain times across the world some things can always be relied on to stay the same and Novak Djokovic will hope to bolster that theory as he targets a record-extending ninth Australian Open title.

When Djokovic battled past Dominic Thiem to win the 2020 title, most of the world was blissfully unaware of the brewing coronavirus pandemic and the impact it would have on normal life.

Djokovic could never have imagined what the rest of the year would bring him, both on and off the court.

In June he was heavily criticised for his part in the ill-fated Adria Tour exhibition event in which he, and several other players, tested positive for COVID-19 after showing scant regard for social-distancing protocols.

A few months later on the eve of U.S. Open, he was again feeling the heat after launching a breakaway players' association and he left New York humiliated after being disqualified in the fourth round for inadvertently striking a female line judge in the throat with a ball.

Djokovic was then given one of his worst beatings when he ran into an inspired Rafa Nadal in the final of the re-scheduled French Open -- losing 6-0 6-2 7-5.

Even last month after arriving for his mandatory quarantine in Australia, he courted controversy by apparently criticising the conditions players had to endure in hotels.

That said, the 33-year-old Serb still enjoyed an impressive year, claiming three other titles in pandemic-interrupted season, and when he walks back out on to his beloved Rod Laver Arena he will do so as the favourite for the title.

Former Australian Open champion Mats Wilander said the strange circumstances in the build-up to the tournament will hurt Djokovic less than most players because of the mental toughness he shares with Rafa Nadal.

However, the Swede said Djokovic, while tough to stop in Melbourne, could be vulnerable early on.

"I don't see him as the head and shoulders favourite over the likes of Nadal and (Dominic) Thiem," Wilander, who will be working as an expert for broadcaster Eurosport during the tournament," told Reuters.

"He might not be able to necessarily trust his form. It's been a year (since he won his last Grand Slam) and you can't just dig back to the other eight times you won it.

"But I actually think the complaining (about the conditions) or whatever it was is actually a good thing for him because it shows he's keen, looking for revenge."

With 17 Grand Slam titles to his name, Djokovic remains three behind the record of Federer, who is skipping the tournament, and Nadal and will view it as a perfect opportunity to close in.

That can bring its own pressure, however, and Wilander will be watching the Serb's body language closely, especially after some high-profile Grand Slam disappointments last year.

"Something made him explode at the U.S. Open because he was playing (Pablo) Carreno-Busta and it was only the first set," Wilander said of Djokovic's U.S. Open shock disqualification.

"Something was off there definitely. Then in the final of the French it was an horrific start. Six drop shots in the first game, it was weird.

"Maybe his confidence level is not that high right now when it comes to the big moments."

(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)