Novak Djokovic takes qualified risk before toughest Australian Open test yet

Croak

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Authors: Rio Sports

Novak Djokovic handed out sugar-free sweets to the media again on Saturday, spreading love and good health in equal measure, but no amount of bonhomie could disguise that the six-time winner of the Australian Open is in for the toughest fortnight of any of his dozen Melbourne visits.

He is gambling on his suspect elbow holding up with the help of a restructured service action and admitted before his first match – against the flickeringly dangerous American Donald Young on Tuesday – that his injury, which did not require surgery, is still not 100%.

“Right now it’s at the level where I can compete, and every day is getting better,” he said. “You know, I’m hoping that it can be 100% at the start of the tournament. Throughout the tournament, I don’t know how it’s going to behave. Even if it’s 100% healed, after six months of no competition, you never know how you’re going to react.

“There’s not much more I can do. I’ve done everything in my power, with a team of people around me, to enable me to be here in front of you guys and to compete in the Australian Open.”

It was always going to be an appropriate target for his comeback schedule, given his success here, and the support of fans who mobbed him the day he arrived. It is 12 years since Marat Safin bagelled the young Serbian on his debut in Melbourne, allowing him three games in an embarrassingly quick, first-round three-setter, but he has gone on to establish himself as the king of this tournament with some breathtaking performances in recent years.

However, the rules of engagement have changed. So has Djokovic’s “service motion”, as he calls it: truncated and more efficient to ease the pain in his right elbow that has dogged him for nearly three years and which cut short his season after the quarter-finals at Wimbledon six months ago.

From dominance to trepidation has been a jolting journey for someone who has come to exude self-belief. He has mixed that super-confidence with an adherence to new-age values over the past couple of years and has a gentler mien. Like Andy Murray, who joined him at the exit gate at Wimbledon before his own enforced sabbatical, Djokovic misses tennis terribly. That is why the 14th seed is taking a qualified risk here, hoping his body does not collapse on him again. It does not make him an altogether backable proposition, even in an open field.

The winner, though, is more likely to come from another quarter. It almost certainly will not be the former champion, Stan Wawrinka, who is in his quarter and who conceded on Saturday that he, too, is gambling on a suspect knee surviving the examination he is about to give it, starting with a relatively easy match on Tuesday against Ricardas Berankis. “It’s been six months,” the Swiss said of his time away from court after two surgical incisions into his left knee. “It’s been tough, really tough. But I’m feeling better.”

Better than awful is not great, but Wawrinka is one of the toughest and strongest competitors on the circuit and he could at least make a move through the early rounds, with the likelihood of playing Djokovic in the quarter-finals – unless the fifth seed, Dominic Thiem, finds some form, or Mischa Zverev repeats his giant-killing of 2017, when he put Murray out of the tournament.

Stan Wawrinka at Melbourne Park.
Stan Wawrinka at Melbourne Park. Photograph: Julian Smith/AAP

However, the older Zverev would have to beat his younger brother, Alexander, to do that – and they are scheduled to meet in the second round. Alexander, No4 in the world, brings more attitude than his brother, and said: “I think it’s going to be a very special moment for all of us. I mean, two brothers playing at a grand slam together and playing each other is something you won’t see very often. If it happens, of course I will want to win. I think he will want to win. It will be a happy moment for, I think, the whole family.”

He has to get past the Italian Thomas Fabbiano in the first round, and Mischa is pitted against the talented Korean Hyeon Chung. Both are tricky propositions.

Kyle Edmund, meanwhile, has drawn an extremely difficult opponent in the 2017 US Open finalist, Kevin Anderson. The South African (Anderson, not Edmund) won in five competitive sets when they last met, at the 2017 French Open, and Britain’s lone representative in the men’s draw here takes heart from that. He says he is over the rolled ankle that struck him down towards the end of his three-setter against Grigor Dimitrov in Brisbane a week ago, and is looking forward to the challenge of trading big shots with Anderson, one of the fastest servers in the game.

“He had a good run at the end of last year, played well at the start of the year. So it’ll be a tough match, but what do you expect with grand slams? You’re going to be playing tough players. If you want to do well, you’re going to have to beat them at some point. That’s the way it goes. You always have the chance of drawing a seed like Kevin.”

He said of the Roland Garros match: “I played well. Very small margins. Apart from the fourth set, most of the sets were nip and tuck. I’ve worked on stuff, have to get better, learning from that eight months on, or something like that. I’d like to say I’m a bit more experienced than I was then. Hopefully I can learn from that and do better.

“My serve has improved, bringing some more balls into play on my returns – that’s definitely going to be a good one for me against Kevin. It depends on the conditions, how the match goes with him. It’s a bit up and down at the minute.

“I’ve only played one tournament but that one was good for me: beat two good players – doesn’t matter about the players, it’s the type of matches. They were close and I came through, both winning the first set and losing the first set. I was happy with that. Even the one I lost I was playing well against a top player. I’m happy with how I’ve been playing. The year’s so long, there’s always ups and downs. It’s important to look at the ups and see what works for you and try to carry that on.”

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