Having begun his week in Qatar, where he has twice lifted the title, with a straight sets demolition of Bosnia’s Damir Dzumhur, world #1 Novak Djokovic may have been expecting a third Doha crown. But his serene progress past Dzumhur proved to be the exception rather than the rule for the Serbian in what became a testing week. Hungary’s Marton Fucsovics, who took him to four sets in New York last year, put up determined resistance in the second round before fading in the decider as Djokovic advanced a 4-6 6-4 6-1 winner.
Nikoloz Basilashvili, who won in Hamburg and Beijing last season, also proved a formidable foe, with Djokovic again forced to mount a comeback to advance in three sets having lost the first. And if he was hoping for respite from his semifinal opponent Roberto Bautista Agut, the seventh seed, he was to be sorely disappointed. Despite a fast start from the world’s best, which saw Djokovic take the first set 6-3, Bautista Agut stuck to his guns and he was rewarded for his persistence.
Using his flat, penetrating forehand, particularly inside-out, to good effect in the windy conditions he pushed an increasingly weary-looking Djokovic back behind the baseline in the second set. Bautista Agut also showed a commendable willingness and ability to stay with Djokovic in the long rallies, whilst coming up with a few moments of magic. He won the second set on a tiebreak, before scoring a decisive breakthrough midway through the third set and serving out to 15 to seal one of the finest wins of his career 3-6 7-6 6-4.
He will go on to face a resurgent Tomas Berdych, who has played some excellent tennis himself, in the final with the chance to get his season off to the perfect start. But questions may now be asked of Djokovic’s cast-iron status as the favourite ahead of the Australian Open. After all, the aura of invincibility he crafted between Wimbledon and Shanghai last season has already been dented by straight sets defeats at the hands of Karen Khachanov in the Paris final and then Alexander Zverev in the title-match at the ATP Finals.
But though this was certainly a frustrating day for Djokovic, it would be far too soon to doubt his credentials ahead of Melbourne. Whilst he was not at his brilliant best against Bautista Agut, Djokovic will surely feel confident about his chances at the Australian Open, where he is seeking his seventh title. For one thing, his trip to Doha was surely more about finding some match sharpness and fitness than picking up a tenth ATP 250 title.
He will have succeeded in that aim after three punishing matches in the singles on his way to the semifinals and a satisfying run to the same stage of the doubles event with his younger sibling, Marko. Moreover, a little rustiness and heaviness in the legs is only to be expected in the first week of the season, it would be a major surprise if Djokovic had not banished both by the time the Australian Open gets underway on the 14th.
The windy conditions that unsettled him in Doha, not the first-time the great Serb has struggled in a stiff breeze, are also unlikely to be a factor on the significantly larger Rod Laver arena where one imagines Djokovic will play the majority of his tennis in Melbourne. Nor will he have to suffer through the same brutally oppressive heat that was nearly his undoing in the early rounds in both Melbourne and New York last year thanks to the Australian Open’s new extreme-heat policy.
Overall then, the picture still looks rosy indeed for Djokovic. There will doubtless be areas of his game he is looking to work on with his team over the coming days, and this defeat will have stung, as do all for such a champion. But do not expect this setback to have unduly rattled Djokovic. And whilst sterner tests may well await at Melbourne Park, with two-time defending champion Roger Federer and world #2 Rafael Nadal both looming large, do not be surprised to see Djokovic lifting the Norman Brooks Challenge Cup for a seventh-time come January 27th.