Two months into the New Year, Novak Djokovic woke up this morning having spent a grand total of 11 hours and 18 minutes at the office. That was the aggregate elapsed time of all the matches he played at the Australian Open — his only expeditions onto the playing fields thus far in 2014.
Thus, it was no wonder that at one point in Djokovic’s first match since that tournament the top seed in Dubai wasted five break points before he was finally able to break Denis Istomin — a player who’s plucked just one set off Djokovic in four previous matches — while on another occasion he blew a 40-15 lead and had to survive a break point to prevent Istomin from leveling the second set on serve at 3-4.
At times today, I half-expected to see Djokovic reach for a pamphlet to refresh his memory of the game’s arcane scoring system. Given all that, it’s an obvious tribute to Djokovic’s talent, skill, and experience that he still ended up winning his tussle with Istomin with a routine-looking scoreline of 6-3, 6-3 in a serrated hour and 24 minutes.
Istomin, ranked No. 54 on the ATP computer but once as high as No. 33, was an interesting first opponent in that he’s a strapping 6-foot-2, 200-pounder with good legs and an even better serve. But it was clear from the start that he plays a game very different from that of Djokovic. Where the Serbian four-time Dubai champ is always looking to move forward and force his opponent back, Istomin often seems determined to move back in order to allow his foe to move forward.
That’s a suicidal preference against a player as precise and aggressive as Djokovic, and we won’t even get into the second half of the equation that yielded this win: Djokovic’s defense, which is so good that even on those occasions when Istomin did take the initiative the most frequent response from Dokovic was the kinetic equivalent of the warning, “Don’t even think about it. . .”
The evidence for all this? Djokovic hit more than twice as many winners as Istomin (26 to 10) and he ventured forward to the net 18 times, winning 15 of those points. No wonder Boris Becker sat there, face red as a maraschino cherry from the desert sun, grinning like a sun-addled tourist.
Djokovic was in control of this match all the way; what drama we experienced consisted of watching him lose the plot now and then. He broke the cheap way for the first time in the third game, when Istomin delivered a prodigious double fault on Djokovic’s second break point of the game. Djokovic had two more break chances in the fifth game, but made atypical errors and allowed Istomin to slip the noose to stay within shouting distance at 2-3.
Three games later, with Istomin serving at 3-5 to extend the set, Djokovic parlayed a forehand approach winner and two excellent service returns that Istomin couldn’t handle into a pair set points. Istomin eliminated the first one with an ace, but another vintage Djokovic backhand service return caused Istomin to bang a forehand into the net to end the set.
Djokovic served to start the second set, but instead of pressing the pedal to the metal he relaxed and fell behind 15-40. Granted, this was against a guy Djokovic usually beats like a government mule, but bad habits are as easily slipped into as good ones. Djokovic relied on his defense to survive those two break points, but Istomin forced a third. Yet again, though, he was playing a step too deep and moving a step too slowly to survive a rally, and from deuce Djokovic hit an ace and teased a rally error out of Istomin to hold the game.
Then came the aforementioned, 10-minute game in which it took Djokovic six break chances to convert what would be the the only break of the set. He finally got the job done from the sixth deuce with a backhand un-returnable and a forehand down-the-line error by Istomin. The 2-0 lead was all Djokovic would need.
Djokovic had a chance to go up 5-1, but he let Istomin off the hook. Then he blew a 40-15 lead and found himself staring down the barrel of a break point. But he charged to the net early in the next point and won it with a forehand drive volley. From deuce, he blasted an ace and won the game on a backhand error for 5-2.
Istomin held, but Djokovic had no trouble closing it out when he next served, converting his second match point with an un-returnable backhand volley that finished off an aggressive, opportunistic rally that pushed Istomin way off the court.
Stat of the match: Djokovic had three breaks, but he converted only three of 12 break points.