Opponents making it easy for Novak Djokovic to dominate

Novak Djokovic returned to the court this week at Dubai with even more distance between him and the rest of the field -- and he didn't even have to pick up a racket.

The Serb, who played (and won) his first match since the Australian Open on Tuesday, has watched as his main rivals have taken a step backward.

The day after Roger Federer fell to Djokovic in the Aussie semifinals, the Swiss tore his meniscus, which required arthroscopic surgery the following week. It's the type of thing Federer has hardly ever experienced.

That meant a withdrawal from Dubai, where he was the defending champion and had defeated Djokovic two years in a row. Federer has not said what caused the injury or when exactly he will return. Also not in Dubai is Andy Murray, though for far more preferable reasons: He is taking a month off after his daughter was born two weeks ago. And he could use the break. Murray looked drained against Djokovic in the Australian Open final.

It was an eventful tournament off the court for Murray, with his father-in-law and Ana Ivanovic's coach, Nigel Sears, collapsing in the stadium during a match and Murray's wife, Kim Sears, back home expecting their child.

The three-set final showed again that Murray needs to be at full fitness and concentration to be competitive with Djokovic, forcing himself to play bigger shots than he is comfortable hitting. It will be interesting to see if Murray is in any shape to be more aggressive when he returns to the court.

There will be an initial concern as to whether fatherhood will affect Murray's approach to his career, and whether it increases or reduces his commitment. Becoming a father certainly hasn't hurt Djokovic, whose current run began right around the birth of his son a year and a half ago.

Another of Djokovic's biggest rivals, Rafael Nadal, has been playing but gaining little traction. The Spaniard lost in the first round of Australia and has fallen short in two clay-court tournaments since.

And before these struggles, Nadal played Djokovic in the final of Doha -- and won a total of two games.

"Since I know the sport, I never saw somebody playing at this level," Nadal told the press of Djokovic at the time.

Few others look capable of really pushing Djokovic. However, Stan Wawrinka defeated the world No. 1 in the French Open final last year.

Wawinka's problem is staying consistent enough to regularly meet Djokovic. The Swiss has not been as successful against Djokovic at regular tour events. Even Wawrinka notes that Djokovic is playing at a different level from the rest of the players. Still, Wawrinka remains confident.

"In Grand Slams, when I play him, I always play my best tennis," Wawrinka told the press before Dubai began. "The power I have from the backhand, from the baseline, from the forehand, that makes me feel I have a game I can trust and go up to beat him."

Milos Raonic produced the breakthrough performance of the Australian Open, but he complained of an adductor injury in a five-set loss to Murray and hasn't played since.

Some younger players, like 22-year-old Buenos Aires champion Dominic Thiem and 20-year-old Marseille champion Nick Kyrgios have been making a move, but they're not approaching Djokovic territory yet. And although the odd player could catch Djokovic on an off day, he has been having remarkably few of those.

The most likely thing to get in his way these days is himself -- if he were to get injured or lose focus. The latter seems unlikely.

"I have lots of respect for other players, and I realize I'm not the only one who wants to be world No. 1," Djokovic told the press in Dubai. "But being at the peak of my career at the moment, I'm trying to use this momentum that I have."