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Alix Ramsay Tennis Scouting Report • Updates On ATP Tour

It is back to business as usual. The big boys have had their break after the Australian Open and they are all dipping their toes into the competitive pond to get used to the water before the tour moves on to the “Sunshine Double” in the US: Indian Wells and Miami.

So, what has changed since we all left Melbourne? Not much, it would seem. Novak Djokovic has barely missed a step, extending his unbeaten run for the year to 14 matches with a simple 6-1, 6-2 thumping of Malek Jaziri in the first round in Dubai. He met the Tunisian wild card in the UAE four years ago and thumped him by the exact same score line.

Poor old Jaziri: he gets his wild card into the Dubai event and invariably he ends up facing the top seed. In 2016 it was Djoko, in 2017 it was Andy Murray (both of them were No.1s when they played our friend) and then in 2018, the fates cut him a little slack. Sure enough, he had to face the top seed, Grigor Dimitrov, but the Bulgarian was ‘only’ ranked No.4 in the world at the time. Jaziri won that one and went on to reach the semi-finals. But not this time. Djokovic wasn’t allowing that.

As he homes in on Roger Federer’s record of 20 grand slam titles (the Serb sits at 17 and counting), Djokovic has made no secret of his wish to break every record in the book. The big, shiny trophies are nice and he knows that there are going to be more of them to add to his collection if he stays fit and healthy, but it is Federer’s record of 310 weeks spent as the world No.1 that he really wants. As of now, he is in his 279th week at the top of the heap and if he wants to break Fed’s record, he will have to stay there until October.

There is, however, a cloud on his horizon: Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard is easing his way back into business with his regular trip to Acapulco and if he wins his third title there, he could reclaim the top ranking. In order to stop that happening, Djokovic much reach the Dubai semi-finals and that would mean beating Philipp Kohlschreiber in the second round (Kohlschreiber beat him in Indian Wells last year but has lost 11 times in 13 meetings overall) and, potentially, Karen Khachanov in the quarter-finals.

Djokovic seems to be in fine spirits in the UAE. He has his family with him and the four of them are enjoying the Dubai hospitality – the food is great and the hotels are out of this world – and plenty of time on the beach. He is, then, the master of all he surveys: blissfully happy away from the day job and in total command when he gets back to the office. Well, sort of.

For all his success (five of the last seven grand slams won) and all his wealth, all anyone wanted to talk about when he got to the Dubai Duty Free Stadium was Roger Federer. What did Roger’s withdrawal mean in the general scheme of things? How did his absence affect Djoko as he prepared for the tournament? How does he feel about a lack of Roger? Oddly, he didn’t feel much at all. Yes, a star of that magnitude will be missed; yes, the sport needs him and “Roger is Roger”. But, really, it does not affect his daily existence. If he plays Roger, it is probably in the final. If he doesn’t, he has to play someone else. It is not rocket science.

But deep down, there is still something that rankles. And that is putting it mildly. When you win an epic five-set final at Wimbledon to claim your 16th major trophy you have to feel a bit hurt when nigh on 15,000 people are cheering for the other bloke. Even in the trophy presentation. People love Fed; they acknowledge Djokovic’s achievements.

This problem was not helped by Djokovic’s dad launching into the debate last week. Speaking to the Serbian press, he reworked an old theme that the Roger we see on court is not the Roger he sees off the court and that Roger is ‘jealous’ of his Novak. Mr Djokovic senior has been humming this tune for years. It prompted his son to try and explain his own take on the situation.

“I’ve read a lot of stuff suggesting that I am disliked but I really don’t have that impression, especially off-court,” Djokovic said. “Even if that was true, why would I want to add fuel to the fire? I don’t want to stir up negative emotions — hatred and anger. I have no ill feelings for people who don’t support me. Having said that, I am not proud of my occasional reactions on the court as my passion gets the better of my self-control at times.

“I will always admit that I do make mistakes and I always try to learn from them. You reap what you sow and it is never my intention to generate bad energy.

“If I invest my energy in those stories that I am not loved, that story will keep growing and why would I want that? Of course you always want for people to cheer for me, but I don’t want that negativity. Those are not the kind of flowers that I want to grow in my garden.

“It is a fact that most fans support Federer and Nadal against me but that’s due to what they represent in world tennis. It doesn’t mean that fans hate me and it certainly doesn’t mean that I need to turn Serbia against the rest of the world just because fewer people support me in grand slam finals.”

Fair enough, Mr D senior thinks his lad is the best in the world. Ever. But just as my grandmother used to say: ‘There is only one perfect baby in the world and every mother has it”. My grandma was a wise woman. But the fact that Mr D junior wished to expand on the issue does suggest there is some truth to the theory: he wants the unconditional love that Roger and Rafa have enjoyed for more than a decade. And who wouldn’t?

But here is an idea for Mr D Jnr: if you are cast as the bad boy then take it on. Make it yours. Tennis is, to the majority of the paying public, showbiz. The sport is great but the characters make it sing. Everyone knew Pete Sampras was the best in the business and, in his day, the best in history. And yet everybody loved Andre Agassi.

Pete plugged away with his ultimate professionalism. He won slam after slam until he reached his 14th, beating Andre at the US Open, and then said ‘enough is enough’. But to this day, it is Andre everyone wants to meet and see. Agassi, the brash kid with the blond ponytail (which we now know to be fake) and the ludicrous shorts; the kid who hated Wimbledon at first until he learned to embrace it.

Remember when Agassi turned up on Centre Court in a pristine white track suit and then peeled off every layer like a Burlesque dancer? When he was done, he looked like a wedding cake in Lycra knickers and earrings. But we cheered and we whistled. This was entertainment. And he could play. Crippen, could he play when he wanted to.

Think John McEnroe and all the others of his generation. Bjorn Borg is a legend but….yes, it’s Johnny Mac we all listen to. Bjorn doesn’t really speak. He turns up from time to time at the big events but he is ‘that fella who won Wimbledon and the French a lot’. Mac is a celebrity.

Then there is Ivan Lendl and Johnny Mac. Lendl won more slams (eight to seven), he was No.1 for 100 more weeks than Mac, staying there for 270 weeks, and he beat him 7-3 at the slams. Yet the brash New Yorker who gave the Wimbledon establishment apoplexy is the bloke we all remember and love today. (As a footnote to this, we have to say that Lendl is good craic if you get him in the right mood, he has a dry-as-a-bone wit and he is a good bloke. But no one really knows this). Mac will be a star for as long as he chooses to be in the spotlight.

The difference between Djokovic and his unsung predecessors is that he will, most likely, end up as the GOAT; he is on course to beat Federer’s 20-slam haul and he may well beat many of the other records that the anyone has ever set. He already has the non-calendar Grand Slam to his name and neither Fed nor Raf have managed that. He is one of only three men in history to hold all four slams. But to be loved unconditionally? That may take some work.

There is a football team (or soccer team for those not based in my storm-swept isle) called Millwall. They are doing their best in the second tier of English football but they have a reputation. In the old days, you went to Millwall for a fight, not for the footy. No one sensible wanted to go anywhere near Millwall. And their supporters came up with a song: “Millwall, we are Millwall; No one likes us; We don’t care”.

If Djoko could just find a way to take a little bit of the Millwall approach and make it his, he might just get what he really wants: the love for being himself. The history bit seems to be sewn up already.

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