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Novak Djokovic resumes normal service with Gilles Müller defeat in Paris

The Guardian logo The Guardian 03-11-2016 Kevin Mitchell in Paris
Novak Djokovic moved sharply at the next and struck the ball with mounting power in his defeat of Gilles Müller at the Paris Masters. © Getty Images Novak Djokovic moved sharply at the next and struck the ball with mounting power in his defeat of Gilles Müller at the Paris Masters.

Novak Djokovic, whose body seems to defy all medical orthodoxy, confirmed the enduring assumption here on Wednesday that whatever his recent problems with injuries to body and spirit he is still the most feared player in tennis.

Certainly the languid Serb was too good for Gilles Müller in his opening match of the final Masters tournament of the season, the perfect preparation for the ATP World Tour Finals in London this month. It is equally logical to observe that Andy Murray is the player best equipped to beat him when it matters.

Their jousting for the world No1 ranking, which the Serb has held for 122 weeks in a row, has been the most absorbing since Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal contested the crown on a regular basis.

Müller, Luxembourg’s best servant for a long time but now 33, more than held his own in the opening exchanges in the second round of the Paris Masters, his canny left-hand serve and artful groundstrokes providing delight for the crowd and a sound test for Djokovic.

However, moving sharply at the net and striking the ball with mounting power and certainty, Djokovic hit the after-burners to break after 25 minutes. Once he had served out the first set the match took a more predictable course.

After 1hr 20min that seemed to pass more quickly, he rounded out a solid 6-3, 6-4 win with only his second ace of the day. He is unbeaten in this tournament in 16 matches stretching back to 2012.

Djokovic’s first serve was near impenetrable throughout, he kept his errors to a minimum and generally played within himself against an opponent who did not have the power to hurt him.

Djokovic’s opponent on Thursday, Grigor Dimitrov, could not have had an easier path to the third round after Marcos Baghdatis quit on day two, injured, after taking only three games in the first set.

The Bulgarian’s next challenge could hardly be more contrasting: his only win against Djokovic in six attempts came on clay in Madrid three years ago. He provided stern resistance over four sets in the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 2014 but their other four encounters have been quick and brutal. Still, Dimitrov might not get a better chance to beat him for a second time.

Djokovic, who arrived from his enforced sabbatical leading Murray by 1,915 ATP ranking points (and 425 points in the Race to London), admitted on the eve of the tournament “the last couple of months were not easy”. He said: “Mentally I’ve had to redefine my goals and things that are happening on and off the court, and just make sure that I’m in a good place.”

Rarely can the words “off the court” have been more loaded. Djokovic revealed in Rio, where he lost in the first round to Juan Martín del Potro, that he was coping with “personal issues” that arose during Wimbledon, as well as injury. Physically, he seems fine again but earlier this week the extent of his efforts to repair his bruised psyche shocked some onlookers more than others. In a two-hour video filmed in August Djokovic explores the benefits of meditation alongside his brother as well as his latest adviser, Pepe Imaz, a one-time fringe player who spreads his gospel under the banner, “Amor y paz” – love and peace.

Elsewhere in his quarter of the draw, Marin Cilic soaked up the big serve of Ivo Karlovic to win 7-6, 6-2, and plays David Goffin, whose solid form held up under a searching examination by Nicolas Mahut. The Frenchman, another one of the game’s serving monsters, took the slightly built Belgian to a tie-break then succumbed to quality pressure in the second set. Cilic is hanging on to the final place for the ATP World Tour Finals at Greenwich in two weeks’ time.

There will be little in the Goffin-Cilic match and the winner will hope he has enough left to give Djokovic or Dimitrov a convincing argument in the quarter-finals.

Also in that half, Richard Gasquet, seeded 12th, had already secured his place in round three by seeing off the determined Steve Johnson in two sets – and now plays another American, Jack Sock, one of the busiest players on the Tour, who took out an out-of-sorts Dominic Thiem, 6-2, 6-4 in under an hour.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – soon to be a father for the first time – looked strong, fit and content beating Albert Ramos-Vinolas 6-3, 6-4. He next plays fifth seed Kei Nishikori, who had a similarly straightforward time getting past Victor Troicki 6-2, 7-5.

Tsonga told French journalists: “Becoming a father is going to change my perspective, of course. It’s not only me anymore. I’ll have to reconcile a family life and travelling all over the place, being away a lot. But it’s extremely positive. I’m very happy.” You did not need to speak French to detect that. Tsonga has hardly stopped smiling all week.

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