DUBAI — Novak Djokovic may be the runaway world No1 right now, and favourite to take away Roger Federer’s title at the Dubai Open this week, but he has started the season a relieved man.
Djokovic, who should meet Federer in Saturday’s final, has been less worried by the reputation of the sport’s greatest legend than by his own. The 25-year-old Serbian’s sensational spell of success in becoming a triple Grand Slam titleholder in one season left him feeling, he says, that he might never live up to the new image of himself that has suddenly emerged.
"I do feel relief more than when I started 2012," he admitted.
"Following 2011 was an extreme challenge — mentally mostly.
"I found myself for the first time in the position of being No 1 in the world and defending a Grand Slam title — three in a whole year, so that was very challenging.
"So I consider finishing No1 in 2012 an even bigger success than in 2011, and I feel I learned a lesson. I understand the experience I went through and I am ready for new challenges."
It was also a brief relief that Djokovic was able to focus a little on someone else’s difficulties.
They were those of his younger brother Marko, whom he partnered in the men’s doubles.
It was, though, a slightly surreal experience. On an outside court, the match took place amid angry gusts of wind, swishing trees, and at the end, as dusk fell, swooping birds.
Marko Djokovic, aged 21, has risen more than 200 places in the rankings since playing singles here last year, and is at 662 and rising. But he and Novak lost 4-6 6-3 10-4 to Nikolay Davydenko of Russia and Dick Norman of Belgium, and the burden of brotherly comparisons remains immense.
"I have to say it is hard because people compare him to me," says Novak. "In the junior tournaments and all these years he has been playing tennis he’s been compared to me when I was that age, and it’s absolutely different.
"So he’s trying to fight, I think, with his mind more than really with his game.
"I think as soon as he manages to control his thoughts and, you know, focus more on his own career, he is going to be good. He has potential obviously — it’s in the blood."
There is even a feeling of familiarity when the world No1 starts his singles campaign here on Tuesday.
His first round is against Viktor Troicki, a close friend with whom he grew up in Belgrade and whom he has faced many times.
Part of Djokovic’s mind strays to the increased possibility, in the current absence of a fully fit Rafael Nadal, of completing a career Grand Slam by winning the French Open in three months’ time.
He does, though, try to resist it.
"You are always in a strong position when you win the first Grand Slam of the year," he says.
"Any player who does that has the possibility of completing the Grand Slam — but it’s a very long way."
Rafael Nadal will test his troublesome left knee again this week at the Mexico Open, then decide whether he will brave the first Masters Series event of the year on the hard courts of Indian Wells.
Spain’s 11-time Grand Slam champion will conclude a three-tournament Latin American comeback tour in Acapulco, playing in his third ATP clay court tournament in four weeks.