The start of the year has become Novak Djokovic’s domain.
While he hasn’t done badly in the rest of the calendar, the world No 1 has dominated the early part of the season recently, winning four of the last six Australian Open titles along with 21 of his last 22 matches in the lead-up to the Grand Slam. His only January loss in the last few years was against Roberto Bautista Agut in the semi-finals Doha in 2019, but he followed that up with victory in Melbourne, and last year he won all six of his singles matches at the ATP Cup. This year he went 2-0 in the ATP Cup.
So what chance of anyone stopping winning a ninth Australian Open title?
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The good news for the competition is that the gap between the top two and the rest appears to be closing. In Melbourne last year Dominic Thiem got much closer in the final than others before him. Djokovic had won his previous three Australian Open finals for the loss of only one set – including a straight-set demolition of Rafael Nadal in 2019 – but had to come from 2-1 down to beat Thiem in five sets.
Djokovic also didn’t finish last year in the dominant style he started it. Having gone 26-0 in the first half of the season, his form dipped after his US Open disqualification, so much so that he described his finish to the year in the semi-finals of the ATP Finals as “bitter”.
“I have had better and I have had worse,” was his assessment of the season as a whole.
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Will that form carry over into 2021? Or will it motivate Djokovic to hit his highest level again? Former Grand Slam doubles champion Todd Woodbridge thinks it will be the latter.
“I think Djokovic can look back at 2020 and feel hard done by, more so than any other athlete in tennis,” he told the Australian Open website. “Because he was, in my opinion, in his absolute prime and ready to dominate in that season.
“Physically he's good, and he's incredibly driven to become the greatest of all time. He's obviously the most dominant player to ever play here. And he's now back in a position where he's got something to prove. He's dangerous when it's like that.”
Part of Djokovic’s success at the Australian Open is down to his fast starts. He has won 64.36 per cent of games played in the opening set at the tournament, which is the highest among players to have played at least 20 matches since 1991. It’s also Djokovic’s highest number at the four Grand Slams (Roland Garros - 60.91 per cent, US Open - 60.17 per cent, Wimbledon - 58.62 per cent).
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In the eight years that he has won the tournament he has only lost the opening set four times in 56 matches. Three of those were in the finals.
But Thiem came close last year, despite dropping the set, and appeared to have the recipe for success as his powerful hitting helped him win the second and third sets. Daniil Medvedev also showed he has the weapons to beat Djokovic at the ATP Finals in November as he dominated on serve, extended rallies and played on the front foot when he could.
Eurosport pundit Mats Wilander believes Thiem, who won his maiden Grand Slam at the US Open last year, is better equipped now to beat Djokovic.
“He should have beaten Djokovic in the final last year if he hadn’t panicked and risked too much,” he told Reuters.
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“He is not intimidated by [Djokovic and Nadal] anymore on the big stages. He realised that ‘Hang on, I’m the one bullying these two around on the court, I’m deciding how things are going to work out, the racket is in my hands’. He might not beat them every time but he doesn’t care.
“Now when you see him he has got some seriously great hands. I think he has by far the most complete game for me, mixes it up more than Novak and Rafa.”
Thiem looks the most serious challenger to Djokovic, who is bidding to win his 18th Grand Slam title.
Nadal hasn’t beaten Djokovic on a hard court since 2013 and has lost both their previous meetings in Australia in straight sets. Otherwise there's ATP Finals champion Medvedev, who has the advantage of being on the other side of the draw to Djokovic and Thiem so wouldn’t meet either until the final.
But aside from those three it's tough to see anyone stopping the world No 1 – if he is on top of his game. He wasn’t always towards the end of 2020 and he’s had some off-court battles at the start of 2021, but he should still be the favourite to win in Melbourne again.
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