Novak Djokovic got his Australian Open title defence off to a solid start as he defeated Jan-Lennard Struff 7-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-1 under the lights in Melbourne. This was the first time Djokovic had lost a set in the opening round of the Australian Open since 2006.
Djokovic is the heavy favourite to win the Australian Open, and victory in Melbourne would grant the world number two his 17th grand slam. He would therefore bridge the gap between his top rivals Rafael Nadal, who has 19 grand slams and Roger Federer with 20 grand slams.
The rivalry between Federer, Djokovic and Nadal is typically one of the main storylines heading into a major tournament, but the biggest talking point at this year’s Australian Open has been the hazardous air quality caused by the bushfires in the country.
Dalia Jupakovic criticised Australian Open organisers when she collapsed and was forced to retire in her qualifying match because bushfire smoke ailed her breathing. Djokovic announced that the ATP would grant £383,000 to aid the bushfire relief and said that he was concerned with the conditions after seeing players and ball boys collapse.
Air quality was not a problem on the first day at Melbourne Park, but play on the outside courts were cancelled due to some much welcomed rain. In the first night session under the Rod Laver Arena roof, spectators witnessed home favourite, Ashleigh Barty fight back from a set down to beat Lesia Tsurenko, before they were treated to a surprisingly competitive Djokovic and Struff encounter.
Struff managed to win his opening service two service games, but it was Djokovic who drew first blood and broke at 2-2 thanks to his thunderous returns and superb defence.
Djokovic quickly went up 5-2 and looked on course to close out the opening set in under 30 minutes. But, Struff hit a brilliant passing shot in the ninth game and broke Djokovic to get back on serve.
Struff continued to keep the seven-time champion at bay and they reached a first-set tiebreak. The last time they played a tiebreak, Djokovic lost one point. This time, the Serb was made to work much harder, but he still snatched the opening set in 50 minutes.
Djokovic soon started to relax and show everyone why he is at home on the speedy hard courts. He broke his opponent in the first game of the second set before storming out to a 3-1 lead.
Struff was not playing badly, he was just dealing with a man who had a strong start to the year. Djokovic led his country to the ATP Cup title this month by winning all his singles and doubles matches and had impressive wins over world number one Nadal and world number four Daniil Medvedev.
Djokovic had also beaten Struff in their previous two meetings, including a straight-sets victory at Roland Garros in 2019. It was always going to be a tough ask for Struff to cause an upset.
Djokovic continued to mount the pressure on Struff and came up with a stunning passing shot of his own to gain a double break and again take a 5-2 lead. This time, he did not let his advantage slip and hit an overhead smash to seal the second set.
Struff had won three times in his career after being down two sets to love, but it was high unlikely that he would make it a fourth. Djokovic had only been defeated once after going up two straight sets, and that was a decade ago against Jurgen Melzer at the French Open.
Struff however, appeared unfazed by his opponent and the history books as he made life difficult for Djokovic in the third set. The two traded breaks early on before Struff managed to break Djokovic and go in front 4-2. Djokovic’s usually strong serve went on a hiatus and he hit back-to-back double faults to gift Struff the third set.
The great champions know how to deal with a threat and Djokovic did not show any signs of frustration. He hit the reset button at the start of the fourth set and won the first two games. The German’s level began to drop and he went down a double-break after hitting a double fault at 1-3. Unforced errors continued to plague Struff and Djokovic converted his second match point to achieve his 69th Australian Open match win. Djokovic is now the fifth player in history to hit 900 career singles match wins.
Djokovic is fully aware that he could make more history at this event. If he wins the championship, he will secure a record eight titles in Melbourne. If either Federer or Nadal are standing tall at the end of the two weeks, they will write history. Nadal will become the only male player to win every grand slam twice, and victory for Federer would give him a record-tying seven Australian Open titles.
Main image – Djokovic forehand – no known copyright restrictions on Flickr – no attribution needed