It had been 29 days since Novak Djokovic last took the court. If he was a bit rusty for the first set-and-a-half against Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, it was understandable. Stebe, the No. 72 player in the world, had taken a set off of Lleyton Hewitt at the Australian Open, but it was one of only two sets the lefty had won in 2012, having been a first-round casualty in all four of the ATP events he’d played in. Last year at this time, Stebe was competing in a Futures event in Turkey. The daunting task facing Stebe was evident in a glimpse at his and Djokovic’s total prize money winnings entering the match: Djokovic's $35 million to Stebe’s $41,000.
Stebe, who came up through the juniors competing against Djokovic’s younger brother, 20-year-old Marko (who received a wild card into Dubai and played earlier in the day, losing in straight sets to Andrey Golubev), double-faulted on his two of his first three service points and was promptly broken. But the 21-year-old German, who sports a good, hard first serve and penetrating ground strokes, was up two break points against the world No. 1 at 1-2, though he couldn’t come up with the break. Stebe stood toe-to-toe with Djokovic from not far outside the baseline and proceeded to trade flat bombers with the super-fit Serb. Djokovic was forced to come up to the net more than usual and resort to hitting his slice backhand a lot more in fending off the frail-looking Stebe’s firepower.
At 5-4, with Djokovic serving for the first set, the world No. 1 missed two backhands and found himself at 15-30. He started bouncing the ball even more than usual before his service attempts, indicating that the pressure was building. But on the next point, Djokovic hit what has become his money shot, a wide-angle, cross-court forehand winner that not even the fleet-of-foot Stebe could track down.
Djokovic then calmly served out the first set.
But Stebe did not go meekly into the Dubai night. At 1-2 on Djokovic’s serve, Stebe clocked a running two-handed backhand down the line that landed right on the sideline for a winner, claiming the first break point of the second set. Again, Djokovic answered with his signature shot; again he fended Stebe off. In the next game, Djokovic hit an inside-out forehand for a winner and broke serve. Stebe suddenly looked like the No. 72 player without an ATP match win on the season (he did win a Davis Cup match against Argentina) facing the ultimate challenge, as he was broken again. Djokovic sealed the match, 6-4, 6-2, in 88 minutes.
Djokovic will probably not face a serious challenge in Dubai until the semifinals, where Andy Murray potentially awaits. The last time Djokovic and Murray dueled, they went to 7-5 in the fifth set of the Australian Open semis before Nole prevailed. Djokovic could also face fellow Serb Janko Tipsarevic in the quarters.
By the end of Djokovic’s historic 2011 season, he was playing on fumes. The Serb is now 8-0 in 2012. He’s also attempting to be the first player to win this ATP World Tour 500 event four straight times. “Any tournament I’m playing in, I’m aiming to win,” said Djokovic. “I’ve been at the peak of my form at 24. I believe that I can win most of the matches I play on the court.”