Novak Djokovic edges Jan-Lennard Struff in Australian Open first round

Novak Djokovic recovered from a nervy third set to progress from the opening round at the Australian Open, 7-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-1, against Jan-Lennard Struff, but concerns over the air quality dominated the day’s headlines after several earlier fixtures were cancelled as smog and rain plagued day one.

The off-court crisis of the Australian bush fires have dominated talk around the event with major concerns over the safety of players at the tournament. From the retirement of Dalilia Jakupovic who was assisted off court due to the ‘unhealthy’ air quality, to day-one match cancellations – the opening stages of the Australian Open have proved messy to say the least.

The sheer brilliance at times, of seven-time Australian Open winner Djokovic, provided a minor distraction though even he had doubts over the tournament going ahead amid the health of players potentially being put at risk. Smog and rain had disrupted play throughout the day, but an overhead roof protected Djokovic’s highly anticipated opening appearance against his first challenger.

As the attention finally drew towards that of the main event at Rod Laver Arena, the prospect of even competing against Djokovic looked troubling for challenger, Struff. Prior to the on-court action, the German struggled to hide his frustration at being drawn against the reigning, defending champion who, based on his initial red-hot start to proceedings, looked to be an unrivalled favourite to be crowned an eight-time Australian Open champion.

No other player has amassed the mean feat of seven Australian Open titles, as last year Djokovic became the outright most successful player of all-time at the 1 tournament, edging ahead of slick veteran, Roger Federer, who is expected to pose a threat to the Serbian should the pair excel to the latter stages. Having started the New Year with Serbia’s success at the ATP Cup, hunger for further success and the hunt for Grand Slam number 17 is evidently well underway.

Struff is ranked 37 seed and the immediate disappointment of drawing Djokovic would be further dampened by an understandably poor record against the Serbian, who extended his unbeaten record against the 29-year-old to three. Despite an encouraging opening set and thrilling comeback in the third set, he couldn’t match the consistency boasted on the opposing side of the court. Djokovic prevailed once again having been paired against Struff most recently in 2019’s Roland Garros encounter, after their first ever meeting in Doha, Qatar in 2017, winning in straight sets on both occasions – dominance that Djokovic failed to replicate in the first round encounter at the Australian Open.

Authority over the court was expected for Djokovic, though Struff proved a challenge midway through the first set and his efforts were met with applause after a sublime forehand from the baseline won a tough point, though it wasn’t enough to prevent Djokovic pulling out a 3-2 lead early on. Like a sponge, Djokovic was able to absorb the power of Struff’s heavy hitting shots and the Serbian forced an error from his opposing player to ensure he won the first break point to lead 4-2.

Having hardly broken into a sweat, Djokovic couldn’t help himself and attempted a cheeky through-the-legs trick-shot, but he was ultimately left red-faced as the ball rippled the near side of the net. Complacency from Djokovic meant Struff gained confidence and was able to break the defending champion to make it 5-4 and then 5- 5. 2

Struff had previously never won a set against Djokovic prior to the third set and the prospect of losing that record for the first time proved a real possibility as early as the first set, as the pair faced off in a tiebreak. The Serbian remained calm despite a constant threat from the opposing side of the net and his world-beating quality was enough to survive several scares, to clinch the first set 7-6.

Having exerted masses of energy in the first set, Struff began the second set in leggy fashion and surrendered an early break. Djokovic then threatened to break into his stride and unleashed the element of domination which had been absent from the opening set – much to the credit of Struff.

Djokovic had a reply for most of what was thrown at him, demonstrating assurance in all parts of the game, evidenced in the third game where he approached the net to clip the ball out of the German’s reach. The noise in the crowd elevated to new heights as Djokovic went 5-2 ahead with a quality final point that wrong-footed Struff and sent him the opposing way, as a respectful applause rung out around the Rod Laver Arena before he closed out the second set 6-2 with just over one-hour played.

A routine third set for Djokovic looked certain, but Struff gave it everything to complicate an uncomfortable start to the third set for the Serbian. Every game became a battle for Struff as he escaped deuce to win his first game. However, the German’s gritty resistance forced him back into contention for the set as he broke Djokovic to lead 2-0, but he failed to capitalise conceding the following two games.

Seemingly in the ascendance, Djokovic then stumbled to defeat in the following few games and found himself 4-2 down. The Serbian himself was resigned to applauding a drop-shot that forced deuce, as Struff looked to go 5-2 in front, before he 3 eventually held the game and excelled to four game wins in succession to win his first set against Djokovic, 6-2.

Ruthlessness was the word of the fourth set as Djokovic was able to break Struff’s stride. He began the set in a much more assured fashion than the last, and was able to maintain pressure throughout winning four consecutive games. Struff struggled to respond to Djokovic as the Serbian nudged ever-closer to progression and match- point, where after a third break in the fourth set ensured he would end the final set 6- 1.

In the upcoming second round Djokovic is likely to face off against world number 144, Tatsuma Ito or the winner of a yet-to-play qualifier, in preparation for an expected semi-final bout with Roger Federer. Should he succeed against the Swiss it would be another fierce face-off with Rafael Nadal, though Djokovic would feel he has the measure of the world’s current highest seeded player. The Serbian’s confidence seems at an almighty high and looks to have the mental edge over Nadal after ATP Cup success was followed by the Spaniard’s withdrawal from the resulting doubles tie between the nations to ‘rest up’ ahead of the Australian Open.

Photo credit: Novak Djokovic at the 2011 Australian Open |Source = originally posted to ”’Flickr”’ as http://www.flickr.com/photos/globalite/5444260303/ |Date = 2011-03-30 |Author = [http://www.flickr.com/photos/globalite/ globalit

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