x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Djokovic to sprint into 2014 season at Mubadala World Tennis Championship

The two-time defending Mubadala champion begins his season on Friday night against world No 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, with new coach Boris Becker in tow, writes Steve Elling.

From left: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, David Ferrer, Andy Murray, Stanislas Wawrinka and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will all be in action today at the Zayed Sports City Tennis Complex. Courtesy Photo
From left: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, David Ferrer, Andy Murray, Stanislas Wawrinka and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will all be in action today at the Zayed Sports City Tennis Complex. Courtesy Photo

Take half a dozen exceptionally competitive male sports figures, put them in an athletic position, and the question was sure to be broached. Testosterone usually works in predictable ways.

As part of a publicity photo shoot to promote the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, the six players entered in the event lined up early on Thursday morning on the Yas Marina Circuit, like track sprinters in the starting blocks before a race, smiles flashing across their faces and similar thoughts crossing several minds.

Ah, temptation. Looking at a potential finish line in the distance, the reigning Wimbledon champion Andy Murray first posed the question.

He said: “Who do you think would win?”

Various nominations were made.

“We didn’t try it,” the world No 2 Novak Djokovic said, laughing. “But we might.”

While a tennis season is more akin to a marathon than a sprint, Djokovic is hoping 2014 most closely resembles the incredible finishing kick with which he finished the 2013 season.

Strong out of the blocks, off-balance towards the middle but a blur down the stretch, the two-time defending Mubadala champion begins his 2014 on Friday night at 5pm against world No 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, with new coach Boris Becker in tow.

Djokovic, who will not make any other starts between Mubadala and the beginning of the Australian Open on January 13, ended last season with victories in his final four events, including a pair of head-to-head finals wins over the world No 1 Rafael Nadal.

“We consider this the start of the new season,” Djokovic said. “I hope I can build on that and continue the streak and run.”

He is seemingly built for both speed and the long haul. Despite some uncharacteristically uneven play in the middle of the year, the Serb won seven times last season, which included a record-setting third title in succession at the Aussie Open.

Nonetheless, Nadal won 10 times and moved into the top spot in the rankings, prompting some career reassessment.

During the middle of the year, the already large Djokovic camp began to consider adding yet another voice to the chorus, and began informal discussions with Becker, a six-time grand slam champion.

Though Becker has precisely zero coaching experience at the elite level, Djokovic believes he might be able to provide the magical “one per cent” difference between losing in the finals and winning, as he put it.

“We thought about different names,” he said. “It had to be a person who has been in the particular situation I have been in.”

Djokovic wanted feedback from a player who had actually climbed the mountain, who could speak from experience. Somebody who had been there, done that. In listing the nuances of their work together – they started practising last week – it sounds cerebral as much as anything.

For those wondering why a player at this level, having recently completed 100 weeks in succession as world No 1, would be making such an abrupt change of direction, fans can expect tinkering, not an overhaul.

“We’re not going to make any major changes,” said Djokovic, who won in Dubai 10 months ago. “I already feel like I’m a complete player.”

However it works out, Becker should make for some interesting colour along the way.

A TV analyst for the past few years, he is the youngest winner of grand slam event – Wimbledon at age 17 in 1985 – and has been one of the sport’s most prominent personalities of the past few decades. His presence can be only a positive for the sport’s publicity machine.

“It’s good for tennis,” said Murray, who has worked with another former great, Ivan Lendl, for the past two years. “Now we just have to wait and see how it works out.”

Djokovic ended the 2013 season with a 22-match undefeated streak in ATP events, and while the Mubadala event is unofficial, with six players ranked in the world top 10 entered, it makes for a perfect launch point.

Gentlemen, on your marks.

“I hope this will be the winning combination for me,” Djokovic said.

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