Dubai: Novak Djokovic`s first match since winning last month`s Australian Open brought him a notable atonement and created the impression of a player significantly better than three years ago.
Djokovic`s smartly taken 6-3, 6-3 win over Michael Llodra in the first round of the Dubai Open reversed the result of their encounter in the Paris Masters three months ago.
His performance also illustrated many of the qualities which make the Serbian more dangerous now than he has ever been.
Djokovic often stroked drives which were superbly deep when they rallied from the baseline, and when Llodra serve-volleyed or tried to play his way forward, the in-form Serbian found ways to pass him.
Well before the end the Frenchman was making use of other more humorous abilities - adopting clownish postures and playing keepy-uppy with the ball with his feet, something Djokovic seemed to empathise with.
"I didn`t know how I`m going to start the tournament after three weeks of not playing an official match. So I have to say I`m happy with the performance today," Djokovic said.
"I think he didn`t serve as well and as fast as our last match in Paris a couple of months back. But still, I was managing to return a lot of balls back and making him play an extra shot."
"In the end, we had a lot of fun. He`s considered as one of the funniest guys, jokers on the tour. We made a little entertainment, a little show."
Llodra was broken in the fifth and ninth games of the first set, and when that happened in the fourth game of the second set as well, it seemed that the Frenchman was sinking without trace.
But he worked two points for a break back for 3-4, only for Djokovic to unleash four of his finest serves, two forcing winners, one setting up a comfortable pass as Llodra gambled with a block-and-charge return, and the last hurtling for a 130 mph ace.
All this created a feeling that Djokovic`s bid to win the title a third time in a row will see him at least the equal unofficial favourite with the top seeded Roger Federer, who has won the title four times.
Djokovic`s self-belief is now stronger than it has ever been though his determination to avoid complacency was illustrated by attempts to win points in the forecourt as well, not a natural area for him.
"I`m working on that. It`s not easy after playing 23 years from the baseline you want to step into the court and go to the net a little bit," he acknowledged.
"But, you know, I`m working on that variety in my game, using the serves well, and I did well today."
So determined is Djokovic to add this to his repertoire, he is playing a sequence of doubles events - with fellow Davis Cup hero Viktor Troicki in Indian Wells, with Scotland`s Andy Murray in Miami, and with his elder brother Marko Djokovic here.
"I feel a different player from when I last won a Grand Slam," the Australian Open champion concluded.
"I had a lot of ups and downs and I wasn`t able to to hold my emotions very well."
"I don`t want to be too happy about my success but now I want to move on and play consistently through the year."
He next plays the winner of Dmitri Tursunov, the aggressive US-based Russian, or Marcel Granollers, the world number 53 from Spain.
Later Marcos Baghdatis, the former Australian Open finalist, became the third player within 15 hours to retire.
On Monday fifth-seeded Ivan Ljubicic was halted by a leg muscle injury; now the seventh-seeded Cypriot quit after only four games with Andrey Golubev of Kazakhstan, with influenza.
It was preceded by the retirement of Lu Yen-Hsun, from Taipei, who also felt unwell, lasting just five games against Feliciano Lopez, the Spaniard who is a former finalist.