Still no shortcuts against Djokovic

Originally Published: January 7, 2013
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

Novak Djokovic has a new racket.

No, he hasn't become a comic impersonator on the side, although his hilarious exhibition matches in the offseason make you wonder whether winning all those Grand Slams is a waste of his talents.

And no, he hasn't become a donkey cheese magnate. That turned out to be pie in the sky, just like the rumors about him starring in a TV series or releasing his own single. Not that it's always easy to tell, because the ones about him launching a chain of restaurants, buying his own tournament and appearing at the Eurovision Song Contest turned out to be true.

He just literally has a new racket. Djokovic has switched to a new stick released by racket-maker Head, the company that sponsors him.

It's not unusual for players to turn up wielding new frames in the new season, particularly if their makers have released new models or if they've been lured away to a different company during the end-of-year break.

When Djokovic changes rackets, however, it attracts attention. That's because of his infamous switch from Wilson to Head at the start of 2009, which led to a difficult adjustment period during which his results visibly suffered. On the other hand, the Serb also changed to a new Head racket just before beginning his 43-match winning streak at the start of 2011, and his current version isn't much different from that one.

Still, reassurances were required before Djokovic began his quest for an Australian Open three-peat.

"I tested this new racket," he emphasized. "For me, personally, there are no big changes in dimensions and the distribution of the weight.

"I'm extra careful about the racket. It's the most important tool for a tennis player."

Even those statements weren't enough until the racket had been tested under Grand Slam conditions. "All is well," Djokovic confirmed after looking sharp in an opening-round win over Paul-Henri Mathieu.

That's bad news for his next opponent, young American Ryan Harrison -- not to mention the rest of the field. Potential trouble with the racket might have been the best prospect of finding some small tear in Djokovic's nearly impermeable game in the next two weeks.

Instead, Harrison will have to rely on his own new weapons when the two meet at Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday evening: improved fitness and focus. Last week, Harrison said there were two things he learned last season. The first was, "There is a difference between being able to last for five sets and being able to play at a high level and be at a high fitness level for five sets."

The second was "something that I've been continuing to improve on … my emotions and staying positive."

During the offseason, Harrison underwent a long series of tests NFL players go through to test their fitness levels, and he learned that he needed to be a little lighter. "I lost five or six pounds and was able to get myself in a little better shape," he said.

After a series of coaching changes, he is again working with his father, Pat, and has signed Tres Davis as a traveling coach.

For the first time, Harrison also practiced playing best-of-five-set matches during his training period.

"By the time I was done with my offseason, I was able to play that long, and focus that long, and not lose concentration," he told reporters after his first-round win, a four-setter over Colombian Santiago Giraldo, who had defeated a frustrated and racket-smashing Harrison at the Olympics.

Now he'll try to improve on his last meeting against Djokovic, a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 loss in the second round of Wimbledon last year. "I have to serve well. He's a guy who certainly dictates his service games, and he's going to be tough to break -- solid behind his serve," Harrison said. "If I can hold my serve, I've got myself in good enough condition where I'll be able to be stronger and faster than the last time I played him, which will be helpful.

[+] EnlargeRyan Harrison
AP Photo/Kirsty WigglesworthRyan Harrison will try to hold serve and hope his improved conditioning holds up against Novak Djokovic.
"On top of that, I'm just going to try to play my game. I'm not going to get caught up in the hype of the situation. I can only control my side of the net, and that's what I'm going to try and do."

But Djokovic will also be ready.

"He's one of these up-and-coming young talents who has been playing well on the tour for last few years," he said. "He likes playing on hard courts. He has a big serve, which he likes to use, and big forehand. I played him few times before on different surfaces. I know what it takes to win that match."

Although he'll be a heavy underdog, Harrison isn't disheartened at not getting a better draw. Despite frequently running into big names early at the majors the past couple of seasons, he is always excited about the occasion.

"That's why you play," he said. "That's what you dream about as a kid, to play big matches in the biggest stadiums in the world. I look forward to it every time I'm presented with the opportunity."

As a level-headed but ambitious 20-year-old, he also sees it as good experience. "It's not frustrating to me to have to play these guys. My goal in my career is to win Grand Slams and be No. 1, and as far away as that is right now … you have to beat these guys," he said. "These guys are the top, so whether or not it's second round, finals, whatever, they're going to be there. And so I'm excited about the opportunity."

One interested observer will be recently retired Andy Roddick, who hit with Harrison in the offseason and has been texting frequently while Harrison has been Down Under this month. "I'm still ranked 40 spots ahead of you," Harrison said Roddick would remind him during their games.

Roddick tweeted about the tournament Monday, jokingly noting that "Djokovic is still really good" and delivering a critique of the commentary during Harrison's match.

On Wednesday, his playing days now in the past, Roddick will be watching to see where the future of American tennis is at present.