Federer, Djokovic resume rivalry in Dubai

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DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (AP) - Novak Djokovic enters the Dubai Championships eager to prove that his Australian Open title wasn’t a fluke.

Roger Federer is just as eager to show that his loss to the Serb in Melbourne wasn’t anything more than a temporary slip-up.

Djokovic is looking for a third straight title in Dubai when the men’s tournament starts Monday, while the top-seeded Federer is aiming for his fifth. The Serb beat Federer in the semifinals in Melbourne last month before defeating Andy Murray in straight sets in the final.

“It gives you a huge amount of confidence. That’s a fact,” the third-ranked Djokovic said. “To start a season with a Grand Slam title means a lot because any other tournament you are part of you know you can win. … For me to have that in the back of mind is important. It’s a big motivation to maintain that level of performance.”

Djokovic said he feels much better prepared this time to handle the increased pressure that comes with a Grand Slam title. He won his first Australian Open title in 2008 but then struggled to live up to expectations and has failed to seriously threaten Federer and current No. 1 Rafael Nadal atop the world rankings.

Before Djokovic’s win in Melbourne, Federer and Nadal combined to win 21 of the last 22 majors, with Juan Martin del Potro taking the 2009 U.S. Open title.

Djokovic acknowledged that he often struggled mentally in the Grand Slam tournaments over the last two years, but said that is a thing of the past.

“I always knew everything is in my head. I needed to make that switch,” Djokovic said. “I was always aware of the fact that it’s a process that takes time. I won a Grand Slam title in 2008. I was very young, careless. I didn’t feel any pressure, I didn’t feel anything. In 2009 and 2010, I was introduced to pressure and expectations and faced situations I didn’t face before. It wasn’t easy to cope with all that. It took me some time to gain that experience that I’m using in this moment.”

For Federer, it is the first time since 2003 that he doesn’t hold at least one of the four Grand Slam titles. But the Swiss star said the media and fans should be cautious in writing him off.

“I feel like I’m playing well. Look, I had a great end to the season,” said Federer, who closed out 2010 by winning the ATP World Tour Finals in London and began the year by winning the Qatar Open in Doha.

“It would be different if I didn’t play well toward the end, had a rocky start to the season with no win in Doha, losing in second round in Australia,” he said. “Then, you can obviously ask yourself a bit of questions. But it’s nothing like it. I was able to get so many points in the last six months. I think I’ve been one of best players in that period of time.”

Federer said he was frustrated that immediately after losing to Djokovic, some reporters were ready to suggest a new era had begun with him and Nadal on the decline. Nadal lost in the Australian Open quarterfinals after tearing a muscle in his right leg.

“That is where it gets a bit annoying,” he said. “Sometimes in the press conference where you have to explain something that doesn’t need any explaining. One guy throws a stupid question at you where you unfortunately have to answer it. That’s why I said let’s see in six months how things are. Maybe they’re quite different. Maybe they are the same. Don’t jump to conclusions after three days of tennis during a season that goes for 11 months.”

Age also doesn’t seem to be an impediment for Federer, who turns 30 in August. He said he recovers much quicker after big tournaments than when was younger, adding that he came away from the loss to Djokovic “with a spring in his step” and was back on the court within three days.

“Early on because I was not physically fit enough and mentally tough, I always had incredible muscle pain in tough matches,” he said. “I would barely be able to walk the next day. I find it easier today to handle the stress on tour and tough matches just because I’m so much more fit and know what to expect. As a young guy, you don’t know your limits so you push a bit too hard and become complete exhausted or injured.”

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