Dominant Djokovic back to his best
NOVAK Djokovic has only two titles to his name as the season moves from hard courts to clay, compared with the four he had won at this stage 12 months ago, but the world No 1 is looking as dominant as ever. Djokovic's 6-1, 7-6 victory over Andy Murray in the final of the Miami Masters on Sunday came at the end of a tournament in which he regained whatever momentum he had lost during the break he took after winning the Australian Open.
Careful scheduling was a key factor in Djokovic's remarkable achievements in 2011, when he won 10 titles, including three at Grand Slam level. The 24-year-old Serb's decision to take some time off while he could in February this year could again be crucial to his season. With the Olympic Games denying the top players their usual break between Wimbledon and the US hard-court season, Djokovic grabbed the chance for some rest and relaxation in the wake of his Melbourne triumph.
For the best part of three weeks Djokovic swapped his tennis kit either for his skiing gear or for dinner jackets and suits at presentation ceremonies. If he looked rusty on his return, losing to Murray and John Isner in the semi-finals in Dubai and Indian Wells respectively, there could be no doubting his excellence in Miami, where he won six matches in straight sets against Marcos Baghdatis (world No 40), Viktor Troicki (27), Richard Gasquet (18), David Ferrer (5), Juan Monaco (16) and Murray (4).
The French Open, Olympic Games and Wimbledon - probably in that order of importance - will be Djokovic's principal targets this summer. Not only would the Roland Garros title complete his Grand Slam collection but it would also make him the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four major trophies. As for the Olympics, there are few greater patriots in sport than Djokovic, who would love to win gold for Serbia.
Like Murray and Rafael Nadal (dodgy knee permitting), Djokovic will begin his clay-court campaign in a fortnight's time. "I'm going to have more confidence coming into the Monte Carlo tournament," Djokovic said in the wake of his Miami triumph. "I look forward to it. I want to start well.I want to go deep in the tournament."
He added: "Last season was incredible, especially the opening five or six months of the year, but every year is different. So I'm coming [into the clay-court season] this year with a Grand Slam win and now a Miami win, plus a couple of semi-finals. I think I'm playing equally well as I was 12 months ago."
Nevertheless, Djokovic insisted there was "no gap" between himself and his main rivals. Indeed, the clay-court season could see a battle royal between the top four. Nadal is the undisputed king of clay, Roger Federer has been the most prolific winner in the last six months and Murray has been given a new lease of life by the arrival of Ivan Lendl as his coach.
Murray is the only player who has beaten Djokovic twice since Wimbledon and was by no means disconsolate after losing in Miami. He blamed his defeat on a dip in the quality of his returns, but pointed out that the match had been very tight in the second set, when he went within two points of forcing a decider.
"I feel like I'm a lot closer than I was at this stage last year," Murray said. "At the end of the match I was able to dictate a lot more of the points, which I wasn't doing early on in the match. If I had returned better, which normally is the best part of my game - maybe it was because I didn't play for a few days."