Djokovic launches Australian Open title defence with comfortable victory

A slight leak in the roof of the Rod Laver Arena and a slight leak in Novak Djokovic’s performance. Jan-Lennard Struff certainly put up a fight, but the world No 2 dug deep and took a step closer to his 17th grand slam title of his career, edging towards Roger Federer’s record of 20.

The Serb’s 7-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-1 win sends him into the last 64 of the Australian Open – a tournament he has won a record seven times in his career – but with the way Djokovic struggled to dismantle his opponent, he will need to improve if he wishes to retain his title and become an eight-time champion in the city of Melbourne. As for Struff, well, there were plenty of positives to take from his performance.

However, the tournament was in serious jeopardy of even going ahead. The Australian bushfires ravaged the country and Melbourne was one of many areas to be engulfed in smoke. Despite that, qualifying rounds went ahead amid concerns over the physical health and safety of the players, but that was when the severity of the smoke was exemplified. Slovenia’s Dalila Jakupovic was forced to forfeit her qualifying match while winning after encountering a coughing fit brought on by the smoke from the surrounding bushfires, leaving many astonished that play was allowed to commence.

Other players started to speak about the appalling conditions and cancelling the tournament suddenly became a real possibility. According to world No 234 Liam Broady, an email was sent to the male players by the ATP and Australian Open claiming that conditions were “healthy” and “playable”, but with players forced to use breathing apparatus at the side of the court in qualifying, those claims seemed bizarre.

The pair had only met twice before – both times Djokovic winning in straight sets – and the phrase ‘third time lucky’ did not exactly work for Struff. Djokovic made 28 unforced errors, winning 46/60 first serves. He was expected to dominate Struff but it turned into a matter of simply getting the job done.

Struff started very brightly. His serving was crisp and sharp, delivering three aces in his opening two service games to keep in touch. But if you want to beat arguably the best defensive player in history, that serving must remain consistent – a blip in the sixth gave Djokovic two break points, and he only needed the first to capitalise and take the first break of the match.

And then a little tension came into Djokovic. Serving for the set, the Serb proceeded with caution and Struff pounced. An outstanding point was won by the German to go 0-30 ahead, stretching and reaching on his backhand to pass Djokovic and that was everything you needed to know about Struff’s motivation to cause an upset. Djokovic’s nerves increased and was greeted by gasps from the audience. No one expected Struff to break, but he did, and he backed it up with an excellent service game, holding to love and clawing back to 5-5.

The set went to a tiebreak, and Struff was playing with confidence. Djokovic, a man who hasn’t lost a first round at the Australian Open since 2006, needed to dig deep and find a way through the opening set because the world No 37 was causing him problems. And that is exactly what champions do. Djokovic fought his way through the tiebreak to win 7-5 and conclude first set after 50 minutes. The Serb made 12 unforced errors throughout the opening set – if you compare that to the nine he made in the entire match of last year’s Australian Open against Rafael Nadal, it exemplifies how rusty he was.

The German struggled to mentally recover from that first-set loss, and when he got broke to start the second, that was a dagger that went deep to the heart of Struff’s resolve.

Djokovic wasn’t producing his best tennis by any stretch, but it was enough to keep his opponent at bay. Coming into this tournament having won the first ATP Cup title of the year with Serbia, there was excuse for his lethargic opening. However, back-to-back aces in the sixth game followed by an outstanding break point winner in the seventh was met by prolonged cheers from the crowd and that was the first moment we saw the magical side of the 32-year-old.

There was still fight in Struff but he was lacking the precision and certainty from the opening set. Djokovic concluded the second set with just two unforced errors and the Serb was making his opponent suffer. The German was tiring, and three double faults in the second set was an indication of just that.

But the third set was a complete shock. Struff acquired his second wind and was ready to put up another fight – not something Djokovic expected nor could cope with. The German held onto the first game of the third set and then produced a shock in the following game, breaking Djokovic to love. The Serb had already made five unforced errors at this point and maybe, just maybe, Struff had a route back into this contest.

Well, that was before Djokovic immediately broke back, but Struff remained focused and two games later he broke again to lead 4-2. The 29-year-old needed to capitalise and he did, holding and saving a break point with a spectacular volley, so spectacular that Djokovic simply applauded. The world No 2 looked rattled and back-to-back double faults to gift Struff his first ever set against him demonstrated his frustration.

However, when you rattle the cage of a lion, you can only expect to get hurt. Djokovic came out with menace in the fourth set, breaking to 15 and then holding to love. Defeated isn’t the word to use for Struff from that moment forwards, but certainly deflated. The energy he exerted in the third set had been zapped and Djokovic broke twice again to take the final set 6-1.

It was all about winning for Djokovic. A small fright after the third set was nothing but that, a small fright. The Serb will, however, have to elevate his game over the next two weeks if he is to retain his Australian Open title and become an eight-time champion in Melbourne.

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