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Discovering patience key to Djokovic's dominance

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Before Novak Djokovic became the undeniable dominator of tennis, the 11-time Grand Slam champion was that other guy.

His talent was obvious, but he was too frazzled, perhaps fragile, to become the champion he was searching to be.

Talking with a small coterie of journalists at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, Djokovic, a 6-1, 6-2 winner against Tommy Robredo in his opening match Monday, acknowledged it's important to remember where you came from to know where you're going.

"The first player that breaks down will most likely lose in the pressure moments," Djokovic said. "And I was that player for some time, of course, but I managed to learn and believe I can improve."

Djokovic made his first major noise as a US Open finalist in 2007 and won his first Grand Slam title as a 20-year-old at the 2008 Australian Open. But until his dominance began three years later, there were weaknesses, some glaring, others more insidious, that kept him behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

What Djokovic eventually discovered is that his success would be predicated on a complete and pure "holistic approach" to every facet of his life.

A naturally lanky player, in terms of physicality, he realized it wasn't going to be all about building muscle and power, but a combination that focused on "flexibility, recovery, energy supply and endurance."

And of equal importance was getting his head in the right place.

"The definition of the word 'strong' maybe nowadays is not what my definition is," Djokovic said. "Some people say you are born with that, but I believe the biggest part of your mental strength is in training. Leading your life -- whether you're surrounded and filled by positive or negative thoughts, positive environment or not -- it all affects your performance as an athlete."

All that knowledge has led to Djokovic becoming a near untouchable No. 1.

After a stellar 2015, in which he won a career-high 11 titles, including three majors, Djokovic has played two tournaments this season -- the Qatar ExxonMobil Open in Doha and the Australian Open -- and carted home both titles.

After winning his sixth title in Melbourne, Djokovic acknowledged he was ready for vacation. Remaining a fine-tuned No. 1 is not only about playing to your optimum level but also about understanding when it's a time for a break.

"I've been spending a lot of time with my wife and my child and, of course, leaving my racket on the side," said Djokovic, whose son was born in October 2014. "It's important to balance well and gain that freshness that you need in order to continue playing at a high level and compete in Dubai -- and what is coming after Dubai. It's a very necessary substance for the tough few months ahead, including the Indian Wells and Miami swing."

But first things first: Djokovic's first priority is Dubai, where he's a four-time winner.

With Federer on the mend from knee surgery, Djokovic's most likely nemesis in Dubai will be No. 2 Stan Wawrinka, a player who has caused trouble for the world No. 1 on grand stages.

Although he hasn't won the title since 2013, Djokovic started quickly this season, beating Robredo in just over an hour. For the Serb, it was his 699th career match win.

"Every milestone is very special, of course," Djokovic said. "I wish that I make the 700th win in this tournament, obviously."