The last time Novak Djokovic was on Rod Laver Arena, he battled for the Australian Open title in a six-hour match that left him exhausted but victorious. Today’s match was considerably less arduous, but the result was the same, as he opened his title defense with a 6-2, 6-4, 7-5 defeat of Paul-Henri Mathieu.
The talented Mathieu clawed his way from No. 733 to his current ranking of No. 60 throughout 2012, but despite some brilliant shot-making was made to look quite ordinary today by Djokovic. The top seed opened the match with a nonchalant return winner and broke Mathieu immediately with the help of a lucky net cord and a forehand slapped into the net by the Frenchman. In the next game, a combination of perfectly-placed Mathieu forehands had Djokovic applauding appreciatively, but they failed to provide more than a momentary visual spectacle as the Serb cruised to an easy hold. It set the tone for a match in which Mathieu’s most penetrating play largely glanced harmlessly off Djokovic’s economically brilliant form.
In the second set, after once again being broken in his opening service game, Mathieu changed his tactics. Apparently fed up of being passed from seemingly impossible positions, Mathieu abandoned his attempts to get into the net, opting instead for the thankless task of trying to overpower Djokovic from the baseline. Three careless unforced errors from Djokovic at 1-0 opened the door for Mathieu—only for three aces to slam it shut, after Mathieu failed to capitalize on a makeable second serve return at 30-40. It would prove to be his only real opening on Djokovic’s serve in the match, as the world No. 1 cruised to a two-set lead.
With the result looking almost inevitable, Djokovic’s returning slackened, and a more relaxed Mathieu held to open the set despite a double fault. Whether it was that or a truly bizarre unforced error from Djokovic—a framed return—in the next game that encouraged Mathieu, he began to redirect the ball off deep returns much better and protect his own serve. But breaking serve was a different story, as Djokovic dropped just four points on his serve before holding for 5-5 with a threaded pass that took Mathieu’s legs out from under him, as he charged the net for the first time since the first set.
With his usual killer instinct, Djokovic seized a 0-15 advantage on Mathieu’s serve, producing the kind of inventive shot—a forehand pass so loaded with topspin that it was almost a lob—which his more by-the-numbers opponent could not match. Djokovic broke for a 6-5 lead with a deep, low return that dropped at Mathieu’s ankles. A poor drop shot gave Mathieu one last hint of an opportunity as Djokovic served for the match, and he stepped in for a fearsome backhand winner. But the next point saw an equally sensational miss, and Djokovic sealed the match after 102 minutes with the kind of efficient, unanswerable tennis that characterized his performance and set up a second-round encounter with Ryan Harrison.