Former world number one Novak Djokovic stopped quickly, abruptly changed directions and stabbed at a full-stretch volley that whizzed past Dominic Thiem for a winner. He then turned and beamed. Djokovic is back after the longest injury layoff of his career and he's clearly enjoying himself on the court again.
Wearing a compression sleeve on his right arm to protect his troublesome elbow, Djokovic dominated the fifth-ranked Thiem 6-1, 6-4 on Wednesday in an exhibition match at the Kooyong Classic, a key tune-up event for next week's Australian Open.
Still smiling afterwards, Djokovic said he'd had doubts whether he'd be ready to play the first Grand Slam of the year, but the win over Thiem was a major confidence boost.
"Obviously, I was waiting for this moment for six months to get out on the court and play a match," he said. "Also, I got a great opponent today, the No. 5 in the world, so it was a fantastic test for me to see where I am."
Djokovic, who had been sidelined with the elbow injury since a quarterfinal loss at Wimbledon last year, initially planned to play in an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi and then a tournament in Qatar to start the season, but withdrew from both due to lingering pain in his elbow.
He still travelled to Melbourne hoping to be fit to play in the Australian Open, where he's won six of his 12 career Grand Slam titles. Despite playing pain-free on Wednesday, he said he's still taking it "day by day."
"I don't want to be over-confident," he said. "Obviously, I'm very, very happy with the way it went today, but I don't want to say it's 100 percent. I'll say that when I start a tournament and when I get to actually feel that it's 100 percent. For now, I'm in the (Australian Open) and let's hope with God's grace that everything will be fine in the next five days."
Djokovic displayed few signs of rust after his lengthy time away from the game, hitting penetrating groundstrokes deep into the corners, moving extremely well and volleying with precision.
He also unveiled a more compact service motion intended to put less pressure on his elbow that resulted in three aces in a single game against Thiem in the first set.
Perhaps the biggest change was his more relaxed mood on the court — a major contrast to his demeanour during his recent slump from late 2016 to mid-2017 when struggled in the majors and lost his No. 1 ranking.
Freshly confident, Djokovic will now head to Melbourne Park with the aim of replicating Roger Federer's feat at last year's Australian Open, when the Swiss star returned from his own six-month injury layoff and surprisingly won the title.
"Luckily for me, I'm here," Djokovic said. "So glad to be back and so nice to start in a country and a city where I have the greatest memories."
(With AP Inputs)