Djokovic beats Struff to make Australian Open second round

As president of the ATP players’ council, Novak Djokovic has some responsibility for player welfare. The bush fires, which have devastated parts of Australia over the past few weeks, have had a dramatic effect on the air quality in the Melbourne area. During the qualifying tournament for the Australian Open, players were suffering with breathing problems with some having to retire from matches due to the poor air quality. It’s difficult to imagine the self-titled “big three” playing in such conditions as the large stadium courts have roofs.

As Djokovic, defending champion and going for a record-extending eighth title, walked out on to the Rod Laver Arena, the air quality wasn’t something he was thinking about. Full of confidence after Serbia’s win at the ATP Cup, he took up his position at the baseline to serve, ball in hand. On the opposite side of the net, all six foot five of Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff, an imposing figure for most.

Djokovic is a man on a mission. He desperately wants to close the gap to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to win the highest number of Grand Slam titles. Djokovic is currently on 16, three behind Nadal and four behind Federer. If he wins the title in Melbourne again, it would put real pressure on the other two for the rest of the year.

Djokovic bounced the ball in his lime-green shirt, nine times which is less than usual. He wins his first point after Struff buried his second serve into the net. After Djokovic’s first game, Struff started to get why the Serbian is regarded as one of the best returners of all time. On a couple of occasions, Djokovic fired the ball right back at Struff’s feet as a little reminder of how he can rip serves to pieces.

There is no doubt that Struff is a big server with powerful groundstrokes off both sides with a solid volley. He has shown his volleying skills with his successes in doubles. However, his movement is his biggest weakness and Djokovic knew it. Time and again, the former world number one sprayed the ball all over the court, causing Struff to run out of his comfort zone.

He may not have the gracefulness of Federer’s game or the raw power of Nadal, but Djokovic is an extremely effective defender. He wears players down and down, it must be like playing against a brick wall. Struff, audibly putting every sinew of energy into his groundstrokes with Djokovic, cat-like, at the back of the court, increasing the pressure to hit the lines.

The sixth game was when the pressure first became too much. Djokovic, absorbing everything Struff was throwing at him, forced an error to get the break.

The German number two had an excellent 2019. He had five wins over players in the world’s top ten, including two against Greek prodigy Stefanos Tsitsipas. Struff saved the first set point of the match with an incredible serve which just caught the edge of the service line.

Tennis is a game of constant momentum changes. Suddenly, Struff looked like a different player, breaking the Djokovic serve as he served for the set. The German played an extraordinary passing shot on his way to drawing several unforced errors from Djokovic to get back on serve.

In the resulting tiebreak, Djokovic turned up the pressure again. A couple of incredible passing shots gave him the minibreak and the first set 7-6, despite great fight from Struff.

The second set started perfectly for Djokovic, Struff looked tired already. A couple of unforced errors was all he needed to break serve in the first game. It was clear that the wind was out of Struff’s sails. That’s what Djokovic does to players. He then broke again in the seventh game, with some outrageous defence. Struff was out of ideas. As Djokovic took the second set, it was clear he was really starting to enjoy himself, in contrast with the stress of winning the first set. The second set, 6-2.

As with the first set, Struff was able to regain his momentum at the start of the third by breaking Djokovic easily in the second game thanks to a string of unforced errors. However, it’s a position the seven-time Australian Open champion has been in on countless occasions. He broke straight back, thanks to an amazing return winner.

In the sixth game, Struff got the break back with Djokovic playing some poor shots and making uncharacteristic errors. The big-serving German held his nerve with Djokovic having another break-back point in the next game to keep ahead. Struff took the set, 6-2, after Djokovic made two double faults in a row, giving the German his first ever set win against him.

Djokovic quickly refocussed at the start of the fourth set, breaking Struff in the first game. That set the tone for the rest of the set. It was clear to see that Djokovic didn’t want to risk it going to five sets, so he got on with business with some classic, absorbing play. He was wearing Struff down with some arrow-like returns time and again. A double fault gave Djokovic the double-break in the fifth game, the finish line in sight. He then broke again to take the set 6-1 and the match.

Struff fought well, but the 16-time Grand Slam champion had too much quality in the most important moments. A slight blip in the third set, but otherwise a thoroughly professional performance.

The next round should be a much more straightforward task for Djokovic as he will face either Tatsuma Ito or Prajnesh Gunneswaran, both ranked outside the world’s top 100. He projected to face Tsitsipas in the quarter-final with Federer and Nadal after that. For the world number two, the path is clear. However, his biggest rivals are also on the hunt for the title. Nadal has only one Australian Open title. He will be desperate to add to his collection.

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