World No.1 Novak Djokovic stumbled out of the blocks but was soon into his stride as he launched his bid for a record seventh Australian Open title, dismissing qualifier Mitchell Krueger 6-3 6-2 6-2 at a canter on Tuesday night at Rod Laver Arena.
The top seed claimed win No.259 from 300 career Grand Slam matches – and No.62 from 70 at Melbourne Park – with a suitably solid display against an opponent who refused to be overawed by the grandeur of the stage and the eminence of the man across the net.
Djokovic, who will face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a repeat of the 2008 final in the second round, said the win meant so much more after a “turbulent” 2018.
“It’s great to be back playing healthy, and feeling good on the court,” said the Serbian, who had undergone elbow surgery shortly after last year’s Australian Open. “It took me several months to regain my confidence and comfort level on the court. The last six months have been terrific. I’m very grateful to have experienced this kind of joy.
“Playing Krueger for the first time, I didn’t really know what to expect. I did my homework, tried to do some research on him, but it was quite tricky and quite different playing him. It was a very competitive match – we both had to work hard, we were both pumped, and showed some emotions on the court. But I enjoyed the match.”
Krueger had claimed the last of the 32 men’s and women’s qualifying spots on Friday to reach his second Grand Slam main draw following his US Open debut in 2018.
Operating primarily on the Challenger and ITF circuits, Krueger stepped onto Rod Laver Arena with just two tour-level wins to his name – both against Benoit Paire, both on US soil. Djokovic, his 10th tour-level opponent and top seed at a Grand Slam for the first time since the 2016 US Open, had never lost to a qualifier at Melbourne Park, entering the match with a 17-0 record.
Sufficed to say, the odds were not in Krueger’s favour. Nevertheless, when the match began beneath a clear, balmy evening sky, it was the world No.230 who struck first with a break before the first sit-down, Djokovic flubbing a forehand on break point to go 2-1 down amid gasps from the crowd.
It was a moment as fantastic for the American as it was fleeting. Djokovic was stunned into action by the scoreline, haring forward to clip a volley cross-court before punching a couple of baseline winners to level up in the net game.
From there, it was business as usual for the world No.1. Djokovic dropped just three of the next 13 games as he surged into a two-set lead in imperious fashion, providing Krueger just a handful of opportunities to enjoy the applause of the crowd with some gung-ho net play.
Krueger truly rose to the occasion, but when it mattered, Djokovic was simply a class apart. He left the American to enjoy two fine points on serve during a hellish 15-minute examination to hold for 1-2 in the third – first coming out on top of a lengthy volley exchange, then drawing the world No.1 forward before delivering a pitch-perfect lob
There was to be no escape in Krueger’s next service game, Djokovic launching into a full-blooded fist-pump after finally sealing a 3-2 lead before repeating the feat to move 5-2 ahead. It was his sixth break of the match, from 20 break points, and while he posted 42 winners, more than three times his opponent, that wastefulness will no doubt be weighing on him ahead of his clash with Tsonga.
A love hold sealed the win, moving him one step closer to eclipsing Pete Sampras’ 14 majors with the title here in Melbourne, where it all began with victory in the 2008 final against the Frenchman.
“It’s funny – 11 years after our first Grand Slam final here, it feels like a lot has happened for both of us,” said Djokovic ahead of the duo’s third showdown at Melbourne Park. “He’s also struggled with injuries lately. It’s good to see him playing well, it’s good to see him back.
“I know what to expect. I’ve played him many times. I lost to him, as well. In this court, as well, in Rod Laver [Arena] back in 2010. I’m going to approach it as any other match, to be honest: really optimistic, but also respectful, trying to do whatever I can to win it.”
Source: Michael Beattie