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By Greg Stutchbury
MELBOURNE Jan 14 Novak Djokovic successfully negotiated the first hurdle in his quest to rewrite the Australian Open record books with an opening round 6-2 6-4 7-5 victory over France's Paul-Henri Mathieu on Monday.
The 25-year-old Serb is attempting to win his third successive Australian Open title, and fourth overall. No man in the professional era has won three successive Australian titles.
The match could have been a potentially tricky one for Djokovic.
Mathieu was a former top-20 player, rising to as high as 12th in 2008, before he underwent knee surgery in 2011 that wiped out his entire season and dropped him down the rankings.
"I was very committed from the start of this match... because I knew the quality of my opponent," Djokovic told reporters. "He has been on the tour for a while and he played the finals of Davis Cup.
"He had lots of success (and) he can go out there and play equally well as anybody if it's in his striking zone."
The 31-year-old Frenchman did show glimpses of the prowess that carried him up the rankings, with tactical awareness and an ability to construct, then finish points, though Djokovic said he felt comfortable throughout.
"You know, I felt I was in control of the match in the opening two sets," Djokovic said.
"Then, you know, he started playing better, striking the ball quite well from both sides on the baseline.
"I thought he was serving really precisely and really well. It was tough to break."
Despite Mathieu's improved performance, Djokovic showed why he was world number one late in the third set.
Twice Mathieu had him scrambling, wrong footed and off balance. And twice, a lunging Djokovic was able to recover with heavy topspin forehands to pass the Frenchman at the net.
The first curved acutely across court to clinch the 10th game of the set for the Serb, while the second went like a bullet down the tramline to set up a break in the 11th that eventually gave him the chance to serve for the match.
He achieved victory with a forehand pass before celebrating with his customary fist pump salute to his supporters.
The world number one will now meet Ryan Harrison of the U.S. in the second round after the American had earlier overcome Colombia's Santiago Giraldo 2-6 6-4 7-5 6-4.
"He's one of these up-and-coming young talents who has been playing well on the tour for last few years," Djokovic said of the 20-year-old American.
"He likes playing on hard courts. I think he had lots of success in U.S. hard court tournaments. He has a big serve which he likes to use and big forehand.
"I played him few times before on different surfaces. I know what it takes to win that match." (Editing by John O'Brien)