Novak Djokovic learned a painful lesson last year when his defence of his Australian Open championship ended unsatisfactorily with a disconsolate handshake early in the fourth set of what had been a fiercely fought quarter-final against America's Andy Roddick. Supreme fitness has been a key factor in Djokovic holding his position as the nearest challenger to the world's top two, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, but he admitted to being found wanting at the moment of reckoning in Melbourne 12 months ago when he was forced to retire through exhaustion and cramp.
"I was in the role of defending champion at a grand slam for the first time in my life so I was going through a lot of tough periods at the start of 2009," said Djokovic yesterday as he prepared to take part in the exhibition warm-up event at Kooyong. "I didn't feel 100 per cent physically ready for the tournament, then I changed my racket and I think it all reflected on my game. I was also going through a lot of stress periods. Unfortunately, I finished the way I did - but this year is quite different and I just hope it won't finish that way."
Intensive training in Dubai and in the Italian Alps has helped the popular Serbian get himself in shape for what he expects to be another exhausting campaign. The world No 3 pushed himself through 97 matches last year - more than anybody else on the ATP Tour - and he maintained yesterday that kind of schedule is too demanding. "We are trying to fight for the players' rights and I think it is very important that people understand how we feel," he said.
"Listening to the top players, you get the fair point. The season is just too long. And definitely, having only four or five weeks off before the start of the new season is so little. We have to have at least two months." Djokovic's female counterpart in the world rankings is Svetlana Kuznetsova and the French Open champion joined the large list of casualties from the Sydney International tournament after a 7-5, 6-2 defeat by Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova.
The two players ranked above her - defending Australian Open champion Serena Williams and Russia's Dinara Safina - made contrasting passages into the quarter-finals. While Williams cruised into a last-eight meeting with Vera Dushevina, dropping only three games against Spaniard Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, Safina had to work much harder to secure her latest confrontation with fellow Russian Elena Dementieva.
Safina, whose temperament is fragile at the best of times, found herself 5-0 down to an inspired Agnieszka Radwanska before turning things round to go through 7-5, 6-4. "It's not easy to play against her. She's a top-10 player and she plays very smart," said Safina, hoping to go one better this year after her 2009 Australian Open final crushing by Serena. "I think it was a very solid match for me for the first match of the year."
"Once it clicked it went all the way," Safina added. "To win nine games in a row against a top-10 player is not easy. But I found the winning games." Serena was pleased with her return to competitive action, despite the match lasting under an hour. "It was a good workout," she said. "It was definitely getting hotter the longer I stayed out, so I needed that. I need to play in the heat as much as I can so it was okay."