Winter break gives Djokovic fresh take on season's targets

With the first Grand Slam of the year under his belt, Novak Djokovic has been happy to take it easy. Paul Newman reports

There are not many places in the world where a Grand Slam champion can enjoy peace and quiet, but Novak Djokovic has found one. The 23-year-old Serb, who plays his first tournament since his Australian Open victory here this week at the Dubai Duty Free Championships, has spent most of his time since his Melbourne triumph three weeks ago over Andy Murray at his adopted home of Monte Carlo.

"I've been taking it easy, going to the beach, doing some nice walks round the Côte d'Azur," Djokovic said yesterday. "For me that's the nicest place around now. I really enjoyed being there. It's very private, very clean, a very discreet place and I get to really rest there. It's also one of the rare places in the European winter where you get good weather, so I had a week of sunshine where I could practise as well." Having become a major celebrity in Serbia, Djokovic cannot lead a normal life in his homeland. "That's one of the reasons why I'm not spending too much time at home in Serbia," he said. "I just don't have my private life. That's what I look for – and I've found it in Monaco. I just feel great spending time there. I go back to Serbia to visit my family and that's about it." As he held court on a lawn behind the main clubhouse here, Djokovic looked fresh and relaxed. Three years ago, after winning his only previous Grand Slam title in Australia, he arrived at this tournament via a Davis Cup tie in Russia and an indoor tournament in Marseille. By the summer he was exhausted and lost in the second round at Wimbledon, which remains his worst performance at a Grand Slam tournament in the past five years.

There have been times when Djokovic has appeared less durable than his rivals, but the world No 3 has learnt the importance of prioritising the big events. He pulled out of an indoor tournament in Rotterdam a fortnight ago, citing a shoulder injury, and, like Roger Federer, who is also playing here after taking a post-Australia holiday, is clearly feeling the benefit of his break. Murray withdrew from this week's event after suffering a wrist injury in Rotterdam, while Rafael Nadal is still recovering from the hamstring problem he suffered in Melbourne.

While Djokovic's time between his two Grand Slam titles was hardly a slump – he was never out of the world's top four and consistently challenged for the biggest prizes – he acknowledged that there were tough times. The first six months of last year, when he reached only one final and struggled for consistency after altering his service action, was a particularly difficult period, although everything changed with his run to the US Open final and Serbia's Davis Cup triumph.

"My health wasn't that great," Djokovic recalled. "I felt worst at the start of the clay-court season, which is very tough for us Europeans. We get to play all these tournaments week after week, at a very high level, and if you're not physically fresh and healthy you really cannot expect good results. There were also some private things and mentally I just wasn't stable enough.

"It all had its toll, but everything improved in the next six months. It actually started when I got to the Wimbledon semi-finals, where I felt that I finally played the game that is characteristic for me and that I feel good with. I was aggressive on the court and just felt confident." Recalling his first victory in Australia in 2008, Djokovic said life had been easier then because he was "young and carefree". He explained: "I didn't feel any pressure. I didn't feel anything. But after that, in 2009 and 2010, I was introduced to the pressure and expectations and faced situations I hadn't faced. For a while it wasn't easy to cope with all of that. It took me some time to gain that experience that I'm using at the moment." Djokovic admitted that it had been "a big relief" to win his second major title in Melbourne last month. "I had always been quite close," he said. "I got to a couple of semi-finals and a final. Winning one Grand Slam title three years back gave me enough reason to believe I could win more, especially on hard courts, because I feel I have enough qualities and abilities to beat any of the guys, but I was going through a lot of ups and downs, especially at the Grand Slams. Any time I had the opportunity to play in the later stages of a Grand Slam I didn't use it. I was always failing, but now I feel more mature mentally. I just know what to do." Was reaching No 1 in the world rankings – Federer is within touching distance at No 2 though Nadal has a big lead at the top – still a goal? "It's still a long way away," Djokovic admitted. "I know that I won a Grand Slam and I know that I'm in exceptional form, but it's not only winning one Grand Slam that secures you the No 1 spot.

"Federer and Nadal obviously are the two best players in the world and they are so consistent. They keep on winning Grand Slams, year after year, at least one or two a year. I know if I want to have a shot at that place I will have to keep on winning events.

"Winning a Grand Slam title gives you a huge amount of confidence. To start a season with a Grand Slam title means a lot, because you know you can win any other tournament you play in. I know I can play the way I played in Australia. To have that at the back of my mind is important and it's a big motivation to maintain that level of performance.

"I think it's a level I could consistently find if I am mentally fresh and physically fit. It was the best tournament I've played in my life, next to the Davis Cup last year. It's important to know that I can rise to the occasion. This is very encouraging for me, because that is what it is all about – being able to handle the pressure in these matches." Like Federer, who owns property in Dubai and uses it as his warm-weather training base, Djokovic came here to prepare en route to Australia. He also feels this week's tournament, played outdoors on hard courts in almost invariably good weather, is ideal preparation for the forthcoming Masters Series events in Indian Wells and Miami. "The weather is fantastic – not too cold, not too hot," he said.

Djokovic revealed that he will play doubles in Miami with Murray. The two men have become close friends again in the past year – Murray was sending him photographs from Arsenal's match against Barcelona last week – and Djokovic believes his rival from boyhood days will soon recover from the disappointment of losing their Melbourne final.

"He's mentally a strong player," Djokovic said. "He obviously needs a little bit more time to find his way through to [a Grand Slam] title, but he has all the qualities he needs. He has shown it many times before. He is definitely one of the best players in the world and with his game, especially on hard courts, he will have many more opportunities."

* Britain's Ken Skupski and his Dutch partner, Robin Haase, won the doubles title in Marseille yesterday, beating France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Julien Benneteau 6-3, 6-7, 13-11 (champions tie-break) in the final.

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