Djokovic cruises amid tough conditions
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Novak Djokovic won three of the four majors last year, five Masters titles and went 70-6. It was one of the best seasons in tennis history, and those who say it's the best shouldn't be considered loopy. The Roger-Rafa duopoly turned into the Djokovic monopoly.
But in his first official match of 2012 at the Australian Open, Djokovic faced a significant, familiar obstacle: the heat.
Three years ago at this same venue, Djokovic wilted against Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals, forced to retire in the fourth set. Two years ago at the U.S. Open, the scorching conditions at Flushing Meadows had him in a whole lot of trouble against fellow Serbian Viktor Troicki. Luckily for Djokovic, Troicki can't quite close proceedings against the elite, and Djokovic survived in five.
With temperatures in the 90s on Tuesday in Melbourne, for a brief time it appeared as though the conditions would adversely affect Djokovic again. Broken to fall behind 2-1 against Italian Paolo Lorenzi, he walked to his chair with that familiar, glazed look. Sitting down, he covered his face with his towel and looked distinctly uncomfortable. Lorenzi had none other than Rafael Nadal in trouble on clay last season at the Rome Masters. Could he now take advantage of the conditions and threaten Djokovic?
The answer was a resounding no.
Bernard Tomic, quickly turning into a favorite in Australia, admitted to playing possum against Fernando Verdasco in his thrilling five-set victory Monday. Djokovic wasn't. And though he'll likely never play his best stuff in higher temperatures, he overcame the brief lapse, and Mother Nature, to win 6-2, 6-0, 6-0.
"I'm quite happy physically the way I'm handling the heat," Djokovic said in his news conference. "It's obviously important to prepare well, I guess physically build up that endurance and strength in order to feel well on the court and to bear the conditions, whatever they are."
Can't get much better than that for a season debut, eh? Djokovic even had time for a little fun, pulling off a 'tweener in the final set. He won the point, then raised an arm and pumped his fist. Slowly. He didn't want to expend too much energy.
What Djokovic did well
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Roger Federer and Nadal are fine examples for younger players. Never content to sit back and be content with their games, they've evolved. Djokovic wants to do the same.
Before the tournament, he spoke of coming forward more to end points quicker. He put that into practice against Lorenzi, going 21-for-26 at the net. Fittingly, he ended the affair with a deft backhand drop volley.
"I'm definitely working on my net game, approach the short balls as much as I can, and take my chances," Djokovic said. Considered the best returner on tour, Djokovic cleaned up on Lorenzi's second serve, winning 27 of 29 points.
What he didn't do well
Djokovic dropped two games the entire match, so there's not much he struggled with. But if we're being nit-picky, Djokovic wasn't as efficient in the first set as he was in the second and third. Federer, for instance, steps on court in the first round of majors and usually takes advantage of all his opportunities against unheralded opponents.
"It took me a couple of games to get into the right rhythm," Djokovic said. "It's a bit difficult conditions. But I think I played well after the first set was finished."
Their lone head-to-head was at the French Open five years ago, won by Djokovic in a tight three sets.
The weather forecast for Thursday and Saturday, the next two days the top half is scheduled to see action, should please Djokovic with temperatures of about 76 and 81 degrees, respectively. Then it's a return to baking conditions Monday in the fourth round, at about 90 degrees. Milos Raonic -- or Roddick -- would likely be his foe if he keeps advancing.
And that seems probable.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
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