by Matt Roberts
For Novak Djokovic in 2016, it’s been a case of picking up exactly where he left off in London in 2015. In fact, if it were possible, his performance in the Qatar Open final was better than anything he produced during the 12 months of his annus mirabilis.
Rafael Nadal, who had the ill-fortune to be down the other end of the court in Doha, described the world number one’s level as ‘stratospheric’, saying, “I played against a player who did everything perfectly. I don’t know anybody who’s ever played tennis like this.’ Coming from someone who played against Roger Federer during the Swiss man’s near-untouchable years, that’s quite a statement.
Certainly, Nadal has rarely looked so powerless. His serve was dismissed, his rock-solid backhand was broken down and Djokovic met his stinging forehands with ease, redirecting the ball at will and imperiously controlling the exchanges from the baseline. The Swiss newspaper, Tribune de Genève, described it best; Djokovic atomised Nadal.
While few were expecting a reversal of the result, the margin of victory was still stunning. You didn’t have to be lynx-eyed to have been impressed by the Spaniard in the tournament’s earlier rounds. Despite dropping sets, Rafa looked fitter and faster than he had for a while. But in the final, his blows simply had no impact as he was swatted aside in 62 minutes.
The match numbers were revealing. The 6-1 6-2 scoreline was the most lopsided in all of the pair’s 47 meetings and, incredibly, Djokovic hit as many outright winners (30) as Nadal won points.
For the first time in his career, the sinewy Serb now boasts a positive head-to-head record against Nadal. For context, he’s tied at 23 wins apiece with Roger Federer. The title in Doha was his 60th – he’s one of only ten players to achieve that monumental feat.
All this makes Djokovic the overwhelming favourite to add to his collection of five titles at the Australian Open, starting on Monday. The speed and bounce of the Plexicushion surface at Melbourne Park complements Djokovic’s game perfectly; he can hog the baseline and go into his uncompromising ‘you shall not pass’ mode in the sweltering heat.
Remarkably, Djokovic has not lost a set to a non-Swiss player since 31 August and his US Open quarter-final duel with Feliciano Lopez. With that in mind, of the rest of the field, Lausanne’s Stan Wawrinka and Basel’s Roger Federer perhaps look best placed to challenge Djokovic.
Wawrinka won his third consecutive Chennai title last week and, crucially, is the only player who can cling to recent grand slam success against the Serb, having found the formula to deny him in last year’s Roland Garros final.
Federer, meanwhile, was the recent runner-up in Brisbane where he was ousted in the final by Milos Raonic in straight sets. The 34-year-old World No.3 had been unwell throughout his stay in Queensland and was clearly below-par in the final, sputtering at the changeovers and lacking his usual sharpness. If he can recover in time and bring all his attacking options to the fore, Federer is likely to be Djokovic’s biggest obstacle Down Under, as he was during the second half of 2015.
Andy Murray has repeatedly expressed that winning the opening grand slam of the year is his number one priority for 2016. On the court, that is. With his wife Kim Sears expecting a baby, the Briton has confirmed that he will withdraw from the tournament in the event that Kim goes into labour.
Flying home early would obviously deny Murray the opportunity of clinching the elusive Norman Brookes Challenge Cup. Since 2010, the Australian Open has been by far Murray’s most consistent slam. But it’s also been the most painful. He’s had to endure the misery of losing in four finals – once to a superlative display from Federer and three times to the all-conquering Djokovic. No player in tennis history has ever lost in the final of the same grand slam five times; if he reaches the showpiece event on January 31st, Murray will be eager to avoid becoming the first.
Elsewhere, watch out for the brash, ultra-confident Nick Kyrgios and the focused, in-form Milos Raonic. They’re unlikely to win the event but their names will loom large in the draw as players who are capable of turning frost to fire with their power.
The Australian Open was once the slam of the unknown, where off season rustiness would linger and upsets would be commonplace. But such is Djokovic’s current vice-like grip on the game, the press-conference soundbites are hardly indicative of a field that fancies their chances of toppling him. They’re relying on a drop-off.
A drop-0ff, from the man who’s reached the final of his last 16 events and won 31 of his last 32 matches? It seems unlikely.
Photograph: Marianne Bevis via Flickr