MELBOURNE – Novak Djokovic began his bid for a record seventh Australian Open title in emphatic fashion on Tuesday, crushing 230th-ranked American Mitchell Krueger to set up a showdown with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
The world number one had reached the Australian Open second round for 13 consecutive years, and that streak was never threatened by the qualifier, who caved in 6-3 6-2 6-2 on Rod Laver Arena.
Djokovic, appearing in his 300th Grand Slam match, did drop his second service game to go 1-2 behind in the first set, but broke back immediately and went on to record his 259th match win in a major against a gritty but outclassed opponent.
“Playing him for the first time, I didn’t know what to expect,” said the Serbian top seed. “He was very competitive, and I had to work hard.”
Djokovic closed out last season magnificently, making an astonishing climb back from outside the world’s top 20 in June, winning Wimbledon and the US Open on the way to reclaiming the number one ranking in November.
It was a stark contrast to the way he exited Melbourne a year ago at the hands of South Korea’s Chung Hyeon in the last-16.
He then struggled as elbow surgery was followed by a string of poor results.
“It feels great to be healthy and back on this court again,” Djokovic told reporters. “Twelve months ago, it was quite a different sensation on the court with the elbow injury. Twelve months forward, obviously things are quite different.
“I had a tremendous success in the last six months. It got me to a great position. Hopefully I can follow up on this victory tonight with a good performance.”
Djokovic will take a trip down memory lane next when he plays old foe Tsonga in the second round.
Frenchman Tsonga was on the losing side in the 2008 Australian Open final as Djokovic won his first of 14 Grand Slams.
“It’s funny, I mean, 11 years after our first Grand Slam final here, it feels like a lot has happened for both of us,” said Djokovic.
Former world number four Tsonga missed seven months of 2018 after knee surgery, and needed a wildcard to get into the tournament after his ranking dropped outside the top 200.
“He also struggled with injuries lately. It’s good to see him playing well,” said Djokovic.
The unseeded 33-year-old, who has also reached five Grand Slam semi-finals in his career, will be a dangerous opponent, having enjoyed a run to the last four in his comeback tournament at Brisbane.
“Just very powerful, serve, forehand, big weapons,” acknowledged Djokovic.
“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 I think 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.”
The superstar Serb is right to be cautious.
Tsonga is one of only three players to have recorded wins against Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal while they were ranked number one.
The other two are Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro.AFP