How things change in a year! Around this time last year, Novak Djokovic was staring at an uncertain future with a chronic elbow injury, which forced the Serb to pull out of the Qatar ExxonMobil Open. He had to put an end to the pain and soon after underwent a surgery which contributed to a sluggish 6-6 start to 2018.
But the Serbian slowly found his groove, as he picked up the Wimbledon title and has not looked back ever since. At the back end of 2018, we saw the real Djokovic though as he regained his peak health, fitness and confidence to go on a 22-match winning streak that saw him sweep Cincinnati, US Open and Shanghai Masters titles and finished runner-up at Paris Masters and ATP Finals.
His sensational form at the end of last season took him to the No.1 spot for the first time since 2016. Now beginning the new season once again in Doha, the nightmares of injury are long gone as the 31-year-old looks to ride the momentum of last year.
The Qatar ExxonMobil Open, the 27th edition of which will begin today at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash complex, has always been a happy hunting ground for Djokovic, having won back-to-back titles here in 2016 and 17.
His pursuit for hat-trick of titles in Qatar was dashed last year even before it had begun, but the Serbian is the overwhelming favourite to lift his third golden falcon trophy this Saturday and tie with Roger Federer for most titles in Qatar.
Djokovic, who is on a 10-match winning streak in Doha, will open his singles campaign against Bosnian Damir Dzumhur in the first round tomorrow. Before that though, Djokovic will team up with his younger brother Marko in the doubles today. The Djokovic brothers have been drawn to clash against Qatar’s Mubarak Shannan Zayid and Turkey’s Cem Ilkel in the first round.
Last time the Djokovics played together was in 2013, when they were beaten by Nikolay Davydenko and Dick Norman in the Dubai first round. The siblings will be hoping for a better outcome this time around.
And by the signs of what we saw in Abu Dhabi, where he beat Kevin Anderson to win the Mubadala World Tennis Championship on Saturday, Djokovic looks in red-hot form.
Post his victory in Abu Dhabi, Djokovic has already made his intentions clear for 2019. The 14-time Grand Slam champion said he be “lying” if overhauling Roger Federer’s mark of 20 titles was not on his mind.
While acknowledging it will be a great challenge, Djokovic said: “I would lie if I say I didn’t want to get to as high as Grand Slam wins number possible. That’s definitely the objective, the desire, the goal. Those are probably the tournaments where I want to do my best for the rest of my career, however long that’s going to be, and of course trying to also fight for No. 1 with everyone else.”
Djokovic’s ambitions will be tested though by the younger generation, with Karen Khachanov, the Russian seeded third in Doha, set to meet him in the semi-finals.
Djokovic has lost just three times in the last six months, but all three defeats came against players aged 22 and one of them was against Khachanov in Paris Master final.
While Djokovic will be eagerly waiting for the re-match, Khachanov has other things to worry about at the moment. The 22-year-old is handed a tough first round match as he squares up against three-time Grand Slam champions Stan Wawrinka.
The pick of the opening round matches incidentally pits the doubles partners against each other. Khachanov finished 2018 as one of the hottest players on the ATP Tour and is one of the biggest hitters on the circuit. But Wawrinka, coming back from series of injuries, came out on top in their only previous encounter three months ago in St. Petersburg.
Meanwhile, the second seed Dominic Thiem will be the dark horse for the title, and a favourite in an unlikely scenario of Djokovic getting knocked out early.
The Austrian, who withdrew from his semi-final last year against eventual champion Gael Monfils due to fever, faces a tricky opener this time against Pierre-Hugues Herbert. The Frenchman beat Thiem in their only clash two years ago in Rotterdam.
Tomas Berdych, who has not competed since last June, makes his return as a wild card against a player whom he has beaten on eight of 10 attempts: Philipp Kohlschreiber. Former World No. 4 Berdych will be seeking his first title since 2016 Shenzhen. The winner of that match could face No. 8 seed Fernando Verdasco in the second round. Also on the bottom half of the draw are the fourth seed Marco Cecchinato and the sixth seed David Goffin, who could meet in the quarter-finals.
By Sahan Bidappa/Doha
© Gulf Times Newspaper 2019