19 January - 1 February 2015
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Put yourself on court with ReturnServe. From analysing returns on the court to measuring social sentiment. Data is a game changer. IBM.
Novak Djokovic

It was an iconic photo of this or any other age, the victorious athlete ridding himself of the raft of emotions, the most public of openings of the soul.

The torn shirt, the torso, the cries, if ever a picture spoke of the relief of victory, the successful defending of the fiefdom, this image of the 2012 Australian Open was it.

It was also Novakʼs third Australian title, his fourth following last year. Novak knows that January in Melbourne belongs to him. It has to. 

Historically, any player intent on stacking up a sizeable collection of slam titles has a favoured base to fall back on, a fail-safe major that keeps the numbers ticking upward every year and allows for the fallow periods elsewhere.

Roger has the grass, Rafa the clay, it makes a difference.

And Novak has the blue – no-one plays like Novak on the plexicushion. Four wins from six tries since the precision-defining surface was first rolled out in 2008. Which is just as well given that we still have perhaps the three finest players of all time playing in the same era: Roger, Rafa and Novak.

A leaping start to the new year is thus imperative for Novak. If he misses out in Melbourne, itʼs an uphill battle for the next 11 months. On Novakʼs hit list, Melbourne is a must and evidently it suits him well.

The blue bounce is truer than Wimbledon, thereʼs less exposure to the elements than in Paris, and the noise and activity of New York isnʼt all around. Distractions are minimal, conditions perfect.

And Novak likes routine. No man in the top 100 played less tournaments in 2013, while his past two Australian Open wins were preceded by exhibition victories in Abu Dhabi, a feat repeated again in 2014. Thereʼs no Brisbane or Sydney or other starter for Novak, heʼs come to Australia for one thing alone.

Thereʼs a precedent. When Pete Sampras was winning all before him, Andre Agassi knew he had to find his own niche and his December training camps became the stuff of legend as four of his majors came in January.

Novak carries some similarity to Vegasʼ finest. The measured swagger is there for both men, the ultra fast swish of the racquet, swash bucklers both, the return of serve imperious.

We all know Andre had a second coming and Novak needs to as well, despite never being out of the loop. Three finals and one win in 2013 was a very good year but it wasnʼt enough. Rafa, Andy, Juan, and Roger still, make for a tough 2014.

The liberating gluten-free diet has been in place for some three years now, and the physical conditioning surely canʼt be bettered. Boris Becker is there now to support and push the belief. The back-room team, former head coach Marian Vajda aside, remains. Itʼs some concoction. 

If Novak wants to be number one again he canʼt afford to lose this fortnight, he has points aplenty to defend here while Rafa has none to lose. Motivation enough youʼd think.

Then thereʼs the fear that a loss makes the rest of the year uphill. The French Open is the next slam event and has rendered little to-date. Novakʼs clay play is outstanding, heʼs won everywhere and against everyone apart from Nadal in Paris so itʼs imperative to start harder here. Andre learned this. Mats Wilander too built a bank of Australian Open titles to fall back on.

Every great year begins with a win in Melbourne. It doesnʼt guarantee one, but losing can derail all thoughts of greatness before January is done.

Novak now has 21 wins in a row at Melbourne Park and 36 wins in the past six years, Jo Wilfried Tsonga the last man to better Novak, over five sets in 2009.

Itʼs in the head and the heart, Novak believes the Australian Open belongs to him and with a fifth title on the horizon, so may his contemporaries.

In the 2013 epic Roland Garros semifinal, the clay crown called for Novak at 4-2 ahead in the deciding set, but something, maybe the most inner of beliefs in the Spanish infallibility, held him back and Rafa prevailed.

Two years ago in Rod Laver Arena, it was Rafa who guided a routine shot long at 30-15 and 4-2 up in the final set. Novak seized the second of doubt to break back and win the Australian Open, his Open.

It took everything both men had, “a new definition of suffering” said commentator Patrick McEnroe.

But it was a pain fused with the certainty he would win on his turf and, as with Rafa in Paris, that was the difference. And why in Australia in 2014, Novak very much remains the man to beat.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015
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