Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Updated: January 21, 10:02 AM ET
Djokovic remains a work in progress
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Based on Thursday's display, Novak Djokovic has plenty of work to do if he intends to finally win another major.
Not for the first time, Djokovic struggled in the Melbourne heat, with temperatures hovering around 90 degrees in his second-round match. Unlike 2009, when the complex Serb fell to Andy Roddick, also seeking a second Slam, Djokovic survived this time against banged-up Swiss Marco Chiudinelli, 3-6, 6-1, 6-1, 6-3. The final three sets weren't as easy as the scores suggest.
"Look, there are some things that I obviously have to improve on," Djokovic told reporters. "But opening rounds are a little bit tricky because you're playing against the players that really have nothing to lose. I kind of feel that little pressure."
Chiudinelli is a boyhood pal of Roger Federer and a fellow native of Basel. The two exchanged tears as adolescents as one beat the other in tennis and often kicked around a soccer ball. Indeed, Federer's parents, Robert and Lynette, rooted for Chiudinelli in the afternoon sun.
Unless Djokovic lifts his game, and relatively fast, it seems only Nikolay Davydenko, as hot as the weather, or Fernando Verdasco can prevent Federer from reaching the second Sunday -- again. And if Davydenko and Verdasco each wins his third-round match, they would meet in the fourth round.
"There's a lot Novak could have done to have affected the first-set result," coach Todd Martin said afterward, stationed near the locker room. "But then 1, 1 and 3, granted there's a lot of work and it wasn't the typical 1, 1 and 3. But this guy puts you into a position where you have to defend, and Novak defends great. It just doesn't look easy."
Djokovic tinkered with his Australian Open preparations, opting for intense practice under the guidance of jovial Slovak Marian Vajda, his other coach. The cerebral Martin is in Oz, with Vajda back home in Bratislava. There was no warm-up tournament.
Djokovic was humbled instead by Verdasco and Bernard Tomic at an exhibition in the Melbourne suburb of Kooyong. Tomic may be a promising 17-year-old, but he's barely inside the top 300. Much of that clash was true exhibition fare. Djokovic rushed the net more than usual, often behind nothing. He hit more slices than normal and clowned around with the fans. Given his lack of match practice, perhaps a little more effort was needed.
Last year, Djokovic said he made a mistake playing tune-up events in Brisbane and Sydney. He spent a little too much time enjoying the Christmas holidays and changed his racket, which certainly didn't help.
Djokovic continues to tinker with his game, too. He's attempting to become more aggressive and venture to the net further, rather than depending on his sublime defense. The serve, a work in progress for a while, remains a worry.
Unbelievably, Djokovic was behind in each of his service games until holding for a 2-0 advantage in the third set. He faced 17 break points, including two to begin the second set and one more at 1-1. Chiudinelli went 1-for-7 in the third and fourth sets.
"He understands why the serve went and how it went," Martin said, "but a bit of it is identification of what the issue is and a bit of it is being focused enough to say, 'I missed two or three in arrow, I need to straighten it out, it's not something I can swing my way out of.' That said, the most critical set of the day was the second. He served 65 percent, did great."
The heat, which prompted Djokovic to retire in last year's quarterfinal against Roddick, visibly got to him. Sinking into his chair at a changeover in the middle of the third set, Djokovic panted as he asked for an ice towel.
Chiudinelli was less bothered by the warmth, and a cynic would suggest he resorted to gamesmanship in an effort to keep Djokovic in the heat for as long as possible. Although Chiudinelli and Federer remain close, no love is lost between the latter and Djokovic.
At the end of the third set, Chiudinelli took his time leaving the court for a toilet break. Upon his return, he wasted a few more seconds changing his shirt. Getting back to the baseline to return serve, he offered no apology.
Chiudinelli's career has been impacted by serious knee and shoulder injuries, and he sported a strapping below his left knee. Down 3-0 in the third set, he took an injury timeout for an ailing right foot when Djokovic had game point, not waiting for a changeover. In the first point back, Djokovic double-faulted.
Djokovic later broke his shoes midgame but played on. He then apologized for taking an extended break during the changeover, new shoes in tow.
"I said to him, 'If that ever happens again, you have to call a timeout, you are in an unplayable situation,'" Martin said. "He said, 'No, that's not how I want to do it.'"
Truth to be told, Chiudinelli offered up a convivial postmatch handshake.
Maybe it was a front (cynic again).
The good news for Djokovic is he lands an easier foe in the third round -- journeyman Denis Istomin. Djokovic will avoid Friday's baking conditions -- the forecast high is in the mid-90s -- and returns to action Saturday, when much cooler weather is predicted.
He needs a better performance.