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Sporting Life

Serb still the sum of many superb parts

Without wishing to offend Novak Djokovic, it is easy to conclude after the first round of the Australian Open that the Serb has something Swiss about him. The more you watch him, the more he resembles a finely-crafted timepiece for which that Alpine nation is famous. Not quite flashy, yet built of a multitude of precisely engineered, dutifully polished and superbly arranged pieces. If you listen carefully to his game, you can hear it humming.

Tick, tick, tick.

Yesterday a new Open began and an old Djokovic appeared. Against Chung Hyeon of South Korea, whom he beat 6-3, 6-2, 6-4, he ran 1,966m, won every one of 15 points at the net, smacked 24 more winners than his rival, hit each line on Rod Laver Area repeatedly as if marking out his territory and then spoke later about making babies. Energy is evidently not an issue.

Djokovic is not immediately beautiful but if you look at him, piece by piece, from his snapping serve (10 aces yesterday) to a backhand more precise than a slide rule, then he is fascinating. He does everything well and then he does it again and again. He is deja vu on centre court.

For all the art and science and theories and mechanics of sport, this is the simplest demand of greatness: reliability. Chung may not be well versed in English but he was clearly understood when he said of Djokovic what golfers say of Jordan Spieth: "He has no missing easy ball."

Chung is a six-foot plus, spectacle-wearing, ball-brutalising Korean whose movement would impress car manufacturers in his nation. But yesterday he experienced what everyone else does in tennis: You don't how how few good shots you have till you meet Novak Djokovic.

Chung is a six-foot plus, spectacle-wearing, ball-brutalising Korean whose movement would impress car manufacturers in his nation. Once he, only 19, is less shy to go to the net then Asia could have a heck of a player. But yesterday he - unable to eat because he was so nervous playing his idol - experienced what everyone else does in tennis: You don't how how few good shots you have till you meet Novak Djokovic.

Playing Djokovic is like taking a measuring tape to your game. How far short are you? What needs work - pace, consistency, lungs, self-esteem. This, yesterday, was the tutorial Chung received.

The Serb showed Chung what repertoire means and how it must be unveiled smartly and quickly: In one rally, Djokovic hit a forehand down the line, a forehand drop shot, a lob and then a lunged forehand which curled cross-court for a winner. Think Garry Kasparov on skates.

He showed Chung how to transition effortlessly from defence to offence: One moment Djokovic was hustling way behind the baseline, next he had muscled a heavy backhand, deep cross-court and had recovered position. He followed this by winning a 25-shot rally. And iced it with an ace. Mercy was not found in the heat.

He showed Chung the exquisite art of lifting his level: The Serb was a break up in the first set, the Korean broke back but what would happen next was as inevitable as Michael Jordan wanting the ball in the last seconds of a game. Djokovic was going to raise his game again, he was going to push on big points, he was going get the break back. And he did.

He showed Chung that he takes no point easily, meets no shot frivolously and that he waits for the ball with a sort of quivering intensity that would have impressed William Shakespeare, who once wrote of soldiers waiting eagerly for battle:

"I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips/ Straining upon the start. The game's afoot."

He showed Chung that speed is frightening especially when you attach commitment to it. Later in the match, Djokovic lunged for a forehand, so far behind the baseline that he dipped into the shadows. He got the ball back, but Chung replied with a drop-shot.

The Serb was up 4-0. Why run? Because he is conditioned to run. So he sprinted to the net, sneakers crying out as he braked, and flicked the ball cross court. Chung cleverly dinked it back cross court. Djokovic, like a fencer, lunged low and volleyed it down the line. Chung responded with a forehand down the line, hoping to pass. Except Djokovic was in the way and volleyed a winner. He is tiresome because he is everywhere.

Chung was not dispirited for he was now better educated. You can't be great unless you understand what it means to be great and this is the great service that Djokovic did for him. "I'm just trying to fight every point," he said, "because too tough to win one game. Great experience. Great test to start season".

Chung is out of the Open and he'll shrug it off. To lose is human and everyone is allowed to, except Djokovic of course. If he wins two Slams in 2016, they'll say "not as good" as 2015. Imagine that. But maybe he's thinking of a year even better than 2015. Imagine that?

After Djokovic leaves the court, it strikes you that he wasn't actually showing Chung, he was showing everyone. That no prayer nor curse had worked in the winter; that he was still there, at this level where others occasionally get to but can never stay at; that all his parts are in fine working order.

Tick, tick, tick. Did you hear it? This is still Djokovic's time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2016, with the headline 'Serb still the sum of many superb parts'. Print Edition | Subscribe