Novak Djokovic remembers partnering Andy Murray in the doubles here at the Australian Open two years ago.
Friends and rivals since their junior days together – the Scot is only one week older – they had both lost in the first round of the singles and Murray in particular was feeling the weight of national expectation on his shoulders. "There were 10 journalists [in the interview room afterwards] – nine from England and one from Serbia," Djokovic recalled yesterday.
Murray was the world No 62 at the time and Djokovic No 76. Twelve months later, they came to Melbourne Park as No 16 and 15 respectively, still neck and neck in their fledgling careers, and both reached the fourth round; Djokovic losing to Roger Federer and Murray to Rafael Nadal. It was only two months later that the Serb started to pull clear, courtesy of two successive victories over his friend in Masters Series semi-finals.
Today Djokovic is the world No 3, indisputably the planet's third best player, while Murray is No 9. The gap will grow when the rankings are updated. Unlike his former doubles partner, who was beaten by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Monday, Djokovic is still in the singles, a routine 6-0, 6-2, 7-6 victory over Benjamin Becker earning a second-round match against Italy's Simone Bolelli.
"The loss of a top 10 player in the first round just shows again how tough men's tennis is today," Djokovic said as he reflected on Murray's defeat. "First matches are always dangerous, especially if you play against lower-ranked players who really want to prove their quality. You just can't say that a top five or top 10 player will go through to the third round easily. It's quite different to women's tennis. Men's tennis is really unpredictable."
Djokovic's progress, nevertheless, became predictable in 2007. Semi-final defeats to Nadal at Roland Garros and Wimbledon were followed by his first Grand Slam final at the US Open, where his defeat to Federer came only a month after he had beaten the world No 1 in Montreal – as well as the Nos 2 and 3 in Nadal and Andy Roddick – to claim his second Masters Series title. He won five tournaments in total last year – four of them on hard courts – and led Serbia into the Davis Cup World Group.
Exhausted by his efforts, Djokovic finished the year with three insipid defeats at the Tennis Masters Cup and spent most of the winter break resting. "I tried not to do anything," he said. "It was necessary. I think I played more matches than anyone on the tour last year, so I needed to take it easy.
"I was aware of the fact that I would be starting my preparation a little bit later, but I feel ready physically and mentally. I have a lot of motivation, especially at the Australian Open.
"People say I have the quality to win a Grand Slam this year, especially on the hard courts here or at the US Open, but I try not to think about that too much. It's very flattering, but it puts a lot of pressure on me. I'm only 20, so hopefully I'll have another 10 or 15 years playing professionally."
Claiming the first set in only 22 minutes and winning the first seven games in succession, Djokovic never looked in danger against Becker. The German briefly threatened when he broke Djokovic to love at the start of the third set, but the Serb quickly restored order.
Federer, Djokovic's scheduled semi-final opponent, made his first appearance of the year and showed no after-effects from the stomach ailment that disrupted his preparations last week. The world No 1, who said that food poisoning had been the root of his problem, swept aside Argentina's Diego Hartfield for the loss of only three games.
The Wimbledon champion Venus Williams, Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova, the main contenders in the bottom half of the women's draw, all recorded straight-sets victories, over Yan Zi, Sorana Cirstea and Nathalie Dechy respectively.
Police pepper spray troublemakers
For the second year in a row, the Australian Open has been marred by crowd trouble. Last year, Serbian and Croatian fans clashed, while yesterday police used pepper spray to quell the violence, halting play on the Margaret Court Arena.
Three men were ejected after officers had used the spray to "keep aggressive patrons at bay" during the match between the Chilean Fernando Gonzalez and Konstantinos Economidis of Greece after complaints about "offensive chants" by a small group. Play was halted for 10 minutes as both players and the umpire gathered at the net. Gonzalez eventually won 6-4, 7-6, 6-1.
Gonzalez said afterwards that the chants were "nothing that bad".