by Rebecca BRYAN
Five-time champion Novak Djokovic will be out to reassert his dominance on the hard courts of Indian Wells this week, seeking to shake off the slump that has dogged him into 2017.
Djokovic's five titles in the California desert include the last three.
But the Serbian star arrives at a tournament he has owned shaken by a second-round exit at the Australian Open, which was followed by a shocking quarter-final loss to young Australian Nick Kyrgios in Acapulco.
The setbacks come on the back of a troublesome second half of 2016, when he lost his world number one ranking to Andy Murray and relinquished his Wimbledon and US Open titles.
Acknowledging that his longed-for first French Open crown last year left him emotionally depleted, Djokovic nonetheless says his game remains good enough to get him back to the summit.
"Right now I feel like it was better than it was, especially in the second part of last season," Djokovic said Thursday as unseeded men swung into action in the first ATP Masters tournament of the year.
"Particularly after the US Open I had those couple months where I wasn't myself on the court. Now I'm at the better place and I believe that I'm headed in the right direction."
Djokovic, who lifted the trophy in Doha this year before his Australian Open defeat, insisted the latest setbacks haven't discouraged him.
"Generally if I see myself kind of (in) larger perspective today compared to end of last season, I'm a different player," he said. "I feel more comfortable, I feel more fresh. I look forward to competing and I feel more confident on the court."
But he's got a monumental task in Indian Wells, where he anchors a bottom quarter that also includes four-time champion Roger Federer, and three-time winner Rafael Nadal.
- Dangerous draw -
The talent-laden section also includes former US Open winner Juan Martin del Potro, Kyrgios and young German Alexander Zverev.
"I haven't had too many draws like that," Djokovic said. "It's quite amazing to see that many quality players are in one quarter.
"It is what it is," he added. "Obviously Nadal and Federer are starting to build their rankings. They haven't played, especially Roger hasn't played for six months of the last season.
"Winning the Australian Open he got in the top 10 but he's still not top eight, obviously that's potentially putting him in position to play last 16 with a top eight player.
"We'll see what happens. I guess in the first four or five days of the tournament we'll have some very, very strong matches."
Murray heads the draw that gives all 32 seeded players a first-round bye.
Among Thursday's matches, Italy's Paolo Lorenzi downed Robin Haase of the Netherlands to book a first-round meeting with third-seeded Swiss Stan Wawrinka.
Canadian qualifier Vasek Pospisil defeated Taiwan's Lu Yen-Hsun 6-7 (6/8), 6-4, 6-3 to earn a clash with Murray, while France's Jeremy Chardy beat Moldovan qualifier Radu Albot 7-6 (7/2), 6-2 to book a meeting with eighth-seeded Austrian Dominic Thiem.
The 23-year-old Thiem, who won his eighth ATP title in Rio last month, is among the young players keen to muscle in on the game's "Big Four" of Murray, Djokovic, Nadal and Federer.
Even after his 2016 Australian Open victory more than a year ago, Djokovic indicated he could feel them coming, telling reporters that wolves running up the hill are hungrier than the wolf at the top.
"I guess I'm one of the wolves going up now," Djokovic said Thursday. "And I'm hungry."