Why Novak Djokovic’s unexpected test against the ‘mirror’ could be perfect for Australian Open defence

“It was like playing myself in the mirror,” the 24-time grand slam champion said after beating the 18-year-old qualifier. Naturally, Novak Djokovic was full of praise for the teenager who had just dragged him through the longest first-round match of his grand slam career, an absorbing 6-2 6-7 (5) 6-3 6-4 battle over four hours and one minute against the previously unknown Dino Prizmic. In Djokovic’s eyes, it signalled the arrival of a new star. You have to go back to January 2006 for the last time Djokovic lost a first-round match at a grand slam. If Prizmic had barely been alive for six months then, the Croatian briefly threatened to end a streak that is almost as old as he is.

There was a sense that this historic first opening Sunday at the Australian Open lacked a little intrigue when the order of play was released, given that defending champions Djokovic and Aryna Sabalenka were drawn against 18-year-old qualifiers who were without a single previous grand slam appearance to their names. Late into the Melbourne night, Sabalenka showed why that was the case with her ruthless destruction of Germany’s Ella Seidel, who struggled from the start and then became completely overwhelmed by the occasion. Sabalenka won 6-0 6-1 in less than an hour and it was barely a contest.

By then, the pair of opening title defences couldn’t have been more different. Earlier on, Djokovic was pushed close to his limits by an opponent in Prizmic who attacked the world No 1 with everything he had. What Djokovic recognised in Prizmic’s performance was an opponent who withstood a lot of the usual pressures that the 36-year-old thrives upon and so often exerts on the younger generation. He seemed perplexed that Prizmic could adapt and force him into a such physically brutal match in what was his first experience on the grand slam stage; impressed by the range of movement and shot-making displayed across four competitive sets.

“Some of the exchanges in the third set, it was so difficult to go through him,” Djokovic told Eurosport. “He was defending incredibly well, using his forehand and backhand super solid, no weaknesses, really. The serve is also good, could be better, but he’s only 18 and he’s got so much time ahead of him. He did surprise me with his performance. I told him at the net that he should be proud of himself. He’s a great player and there are wonderful things ahead of him in his career.”

Djokovic showed plenty of respect towards the 18-year-old Prizmic (Getty)
Djokovic showed plenty of respect towards the 18-year-old Prizmic (Getty)

Perhaps this result will be looked at differently in the years to come, depending on how highly Prizmic can climb. Certainly, when the Croatian broke to lead the third set, the Rod Laver Arena stirred at the hint of an upset. But while he is the junior French Open champion, Primzic entered Australian Open qualifying ranked 178th in the world and Djokovic would not have expected to have been pushed so hard so soon into his title defence. Despite extending his winning run at Melbourne Park to 29 matches, there could now be questions about whether Djokovic’s body is ready for the next two weeks after he arrived at the tournament bothered by a wrist injury.

Djokovic, though, saw the positives. “I’m really trying to enjoy every moment on the court. I struggled in many different moments tonight,” he said. “But it is credit to him and his game plan. He had an answer to everything, he was very physical. I had good moments. In some moments I wish I could have played better, more aggressively. It has been a very short off-season and I am still finding myself physically out on the court but I have a couple of days off before my next match, so hopefully I will be able to be at my best for that.”

He will benefit from the Australian Open now being played as a 15-day tournament, with two days of rest before his second-round match on Wednesday. With that in mind, perhaps Djokovic has just been given the perfect warm-up for the challenges ahead of him, with a possible run of Ben Shelton in the last-16, Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarter-finals, Jannik Sinner in the semi-finals and Carlos Alcaraz in the final. It continues the inescapable theme of men’s tennis, as Djokovic continues to attempt to deny the younger generation.

But on the opening day of the tournament, Primzic, who is half his age, was a new and unexpected challenge. That the defending champion still came through it, in a record time but, in the end, with relative ease, will serve as a warning for the rest of the fortnight.

Sabalenka races through as Caroline Wozniacki returns

Later on, Sabalenka dropped only 10 points in the first set and had two match points for a double bagel before completing a 6-0 6-1 victory over qualifier Seidel on Rod Laver Arena. “I’m super happy to be back in Melbourne,” said the Belarusian, who lifted her first slam silverware 12 months ago. “Last time I had incredible memories from here, unforgettable I would say. It feels so great to be back and feel the support.”

Sabalenka raced to a 6-0 6-1 win (Getty)
Sabalenka raced to a 6-0 6-1 win (Getty)

Caroline Wozniacki’s first match at Melbourne Park for four years ended prematurely when opponent Magda Linette, a semi-finalist here last year, withdrew trailing 6-2 2-0. Wozniacki won her only grand slam title in Australia in 2018 and retired following a third-round loss two years later before having two children and then coming out of retirement last summer.

Meanwhile, Jodie Burrage was left frustrated by a lengthy toilet break taken by opponent Tamara Korpatsch and her own inability to prevent a collapse on her Australian Open debut.

The British No 2 admitted it was “panic stations” as the first-round match slipped away from her at Melbourne Park.

Burrage dominated the first set against her German opponent but Korpatsch, who was beaten by Emma Raducanu in the first round here 12 months ago, turned things around after heading to the bathroom and eventually ran away with a 2-6 6-3 6-0 defeat.

Burrage was making her Australian Open debut (AP)
Burrage was making her Australian Open debut (AP)

Matteo Berrettini withdraws as Andrey Rublev avoids scare

In the men’s draw, fifth seed Andrey Rublev was hugely relieved after edging past Brazil’s Thiago Seyboth Wild in a fifth-set tie-break. Rublev had in his mind his good friend Daniil Medvedev’s exit to Seyboth Wild at the same stage of the French Open last summer and he trailed 4-1 in the deciding tie-break after seeing a two-set lead and then four match points come and go.

But Rublev fought his way back to clinch a 7-5 6-4 3-6 4-6 7-6 (10/6) victory after three hours and 42 minutes.

Rublev battled back in the deciding tiebreak (Getty)
Rublev battled back in the deciding tiebreak (Getty)

Former Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini was a casualty without taking to the court, the Italian pulling out as his injury woes continued. Berrettini had been due to face Stefanos Tsitsipas on Rod Laver Arena on Monday in one of the plum ties of the first round.

Fourth seed Jannik Sinner, one of the favourites for the title following his stellar end to 2023, began his campaign with a straight-sets win over Botic van de Zandschulp. Sinner, who beat Djokovic twice in a matter of days at the ATP Finals and Davis Cup in November, was a 6-4 7-5 6-3 winner on Rod Laver Arena.

Twelfth seed Taylor Fritz was twice a set down to Facundo Diaz Acosta and needed treatment after rolling his ankle but recovered to claim a 4-6 6-3 3-6 6-2 6-4 victory.

Former finalist Marin Cilic played his first grand slam match since the US Open in 2022 following knee surgery but was beaten in four sets by Hungary’s Fabian Marozsan.

Includes reporting from PA