He will not exactly be rushing into the net like a super-charged Pete Sampras, but Novak Djokovic's determination to move forward this year has not ended with his triumph at the Australian Open. The 23-year-old Serb has achieved his success largely as a baseliner but believes he can add another dimension to his game by coming to the net more regularly.
An indication of the world No 3's intentions came in his first match since Melbourne at the Dubai Duty Free Championships here yesterday. You always expect to see plenty of serve-and-volley when Michael Llodra is on court, but on this occasion the 30-year-old Frenchman was not the only player following his serve into the net. Djokovic used the tactic sparingly, but it helped unsettle his opponent and he won 6-3, 6-3 to earn a second-round meeting with another net-charger in Feliciano Lopez.
"When you've played from the baseline for 23 years it's not easy when you want to step into the court and go to the net a little bit," Djokovic said afterwards. "But I'm working on that variety in my game, using the serves well, and I did well today."
Djokovic returned to the court later in the day to play doubles with his 19-year-old brother, Marko, although the Serbs faced a tough task against Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes, the top seeds, who won 6-4, 6-1. Djokovic is also playing doubles at next month's Masters Series tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami, where he will partner Viktor Troicki and Andy Murray respectively.
"One of the reasons I'm playing doubles is to work on my serve-and-volley game and returns," Djokovic said. "It's good. It helps. Hopefully I can have fun with it as well. I like playing doubles."
Llodra beat Djokovic on their last meeting three months ago at the Paris Masters, where the lightning-fast courts suited the big-serving Frenchman. The surface here is also quick, particularly in the heat of the day, but Llodra did not serve as well.
"I was managing to return a lot of balls back and make him play an extra shot," Djokovic said. "Michael is one of the rare serve-and-volley players these days. It's very important to return well and to return as many balls back in the court so you can make him play an extra shot and eventually have a chance to make a passing shot. I put a lot of returns in. I think that's what made the difference."
Marko Djokovic, the middle of three brothers, is ranked No 640 in the world, but has been troubled by health and fitness issues, including a current problem with his left wrist. "I think he's a good player, but his main priority right now is to get fit," his older brother said. "He needs another couple of weeks and then he can slowly start and try to get to the top 100 in the next year and a half or so."
Roger Federer, four times a champion here, began his tournament with a routine 6-3, 6-3 victory over India's Somdev Devvarman, a wild card. The world No 2, making his first appearance since losing to Djokovic in the Melbourne semi-finals, looked in good shape, breaking serve three times. Devverman, at a career-high No 79 in the world rankings after reaching his second ATP final earlier this month, scorned two break points for a 3-1 lead in the second set and faded quickly thereafter.
Lopez profited from a third retirement in less than 24 hours when Yen-Hsun Lu pulled out with flu when trailing 5-0. Marcos Baghdatis quit for the same reason after only four games against Andrey Golubev, Ivan Ljubicic having retired in the second set the previous evening with a leg injury against Sergei Bubka.