MELBOURNE • As Novak Djokovic tossed the ball in the air on Wednesday to hit his first serve in his first match for six months, he revealed a ploy which he hopes will revitalise and prolong his career.
It was not so much the compression sleeve that the 30-year-old was wearing to aid his troublesome right elbow, but more an abbreviated service motion that proved hugely effective, helping him to a 6-1, 6-4 win over Dominic Thiem at the Kooyong Classic exhibition.
To reduce stress on the elbow which has caused him issues since the start of 2016, Djokovic's take-back of the racket is now shorter. Some speed was lost as a result, but he accurately hit his targeted spots with ease, racking up several aces. Thiem, who admittedly played far from his best, barely got a read of it.
"It was a fantastic test for me to see what we have done as a team in the off-season, whether it works or not on the court," said the Serb.
"It works pretty well, especially the serve. That was the biggest question mark.
"Because of the elbow, that shot in my game was compromised prior to Wimbledon in July when I had to stop. Every time I needed a big serve, I had it.
"Now I know how it feels for the big servers to come out with the big serves in the important moments."
Less than six hours later, he made his second appearance of the day, this time at Melbourne Park's Margaret Court Arena for the Tie Break Tens exhibition in which he lost 6-10 to Lleyton Hewitt, the former world No. 1 from Australia.
Whether Djokovic will consider himself fit enough to make his official comeback next week at the Australian Open, which he has won six times, remains to be seen.
The recurrence of pain in his elbow at the end of last month, which forced him to pull out of the Qatar Open, was a considerable blow, and he is taking a cautious approach to his preparations.
His head coach Andre Agassi was absent on Wednesday with injury issues of his own after a snowboarding accident during the Christmas break, but has recovered well enough to be confident that he can travel to Melbourne this weekend.
THE TIMES, LONDON