DUBAI // The last time Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open, he picked Dubai to be his next tournament. The Serbian has followed an identical schedule this time around, but insists he is a different player now.
In 2008, Djokovic lost to Andy Roddick in the semi-finals, but is unbeaten in Dubai since, winning back-to-back titles over the past two years.
And he believes he has become mentally stronger than he was three years ago, having changed his carefree style.
"I am fortunate enough in my life to have the people who really care about me and care about my career," Djokovic said. "Of course talking to them really helps, especially people who are travelling with me all the time, that is my team.
"But everything is in my head, that I need to make the switch. I was always aware that it is a process that takes time. I won a grand slam title in 2008 and was very young and careless, hitting the ball and I didn't feel any pressure or anything.
"But after that in 2009 and 2010 I was introduced to pressure and expectations and I have faced situations that I have not faced before.
"It was not easy to cope with all of that. It took me some time to gain that experience that I am using in this moment."
Djokovic's growth as a player can be gauged from the nine titles he has won since 2009, despite the domination of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Two of those triumphs were in Dubai.
"Coming back here, it's a pleasure again," said the world No 3 and the second seed here. "I have spent some time here in December in my very short preparation for this season and I have used it very well.
"I love coming back to Dubai. For some reason, I just feel good playing the tournament and I feel good practising here. It's always good weather. I prepared here for the last two years before going to Australia.
"Of course, winning the last two years gives me even more pleasure coming back to this city."
However, he know he faces a bigger challenge defending his title this year.
Roger Federer, the four-time Dubai champion, was missing due to injury in the two years that Djokovic took the title, but he is back as the top seed this year and probably itching for another match against the Serb after losing to him in their Australian Open semi-final last month.
"Federer is back and it's great for the tournament to have him," Djokovic said.
"Obviously he is a big champion. [Rafael] Nadal and [Andy] Murray pulled out, but I think there are still a lot of good players that are here.
"Dubai always has a good draw. It is always a great tournament because most of the European players who are preparing for American soil - Indian Wells and Miami - are coming here.
"It's also very enjoyable and a lot of players enjoy the same opinion. We feel very comfortable at this tournament.
"The site is great and the weather is fantastic - not too cold, not too hot. They make us feel really good, so I just look forward to another week."