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Who Can Stop Novak Djokovic?

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DjokovicPlaying this past week in the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, Novak Djokovic suffered his first loss of the 2016 season. It was his first tournament action since claiming his 11th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, and he bowed out in the quarter-finals against Spain's Feliciano Lopez. However, it wasn't as if Djokovic was simply beaten. He lost the first set 6-3 and then retired due to what was later explained to be an eye infection.

It may be that Djokovic would have lost the match in Dubai regardless. He took a fairly lengthy break after his Australian Open triumph, and though he looked uncomfortable in the quarterfinal, he was beaten head-to-head in the first set. That being said, the fact that the world number one's only loss this season so far came at least partially as a result of infection raises the question: just who on tour can stop him from completely dominating the field in 2016? Let's consider some of the candidates.

Roger Federer

Any conversation about stopping Djokovic has to begin with Roger Federer, because the Swiss star is still playing better tennis than everyone else on tour. Federer has met Djokovic in the semis or finals of the last three Grand Slams, which means he's the one likeliest to be standing in Djokovic's way whether or not he can beat him head-to-head. Federer can certainly compete with Djokovic, and beat him a few times in 2015 in best-of-three set matches. But the most recent evidence suggests he'll have a hard time beating his rival in a best-of-five format at this stage in his career. As for stopping Djokovic from running the table in 2016, there's an interesting wrinkle to consider: Federer appears to be targeting Olympic gold. With the best-of-three format in Rio, he could steal a major victory from the world number one even if it's not at a Grand Slam.

Andy Murray

Murray remains firmly among the top-three players in the world, but if you follow tennis regularly you may be getting tired of hearing it. It seems as if every six months or so we hear stories about Murray being poised to start a run of titles, and yet he always seems to be beaten by Djokovic or Federer. It was more of the same in Australia this year. Djokovic was a considerable favorite heading into the tournament, but Murray was given the next best odds at the title and a lot of the media buzz was about the encouraging state of the Scot's game. He ultimately fell short in an uncompetitive final with Djokovic, leaving little reason to suspect he'll be the man standing in Djokovic's way throughout 2016.

Stan Wawrinka

There was a very convincing argument made recently suggesting that Wawrinka is the closest thing Djokovic has to a nemesis. Despite having a 4-19 head-to-head record against the Serb, Wawrinka has won two of their last six meetings. He has also played Djokovic extraordinarily closely in Grand Slam meetings in particular. In any given match, Federer remains the best bet to match Djokovic's level of play, but Wawrinka seems likelier to exceed it in the biggest matches. Perhaps most important of all is that Wawrinka seems to want the reputation of being Djokovic's kryptonite. He's probably the man on tour most fit to prevent a clean sweep of the 2016 Grand Slams.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

Tsonga has always been something of a hot-and-cold player, but on his best days and when his serve is working, he's perfectly capable of taking on the top players in the game. That includes Djokovic, against whom Tsonga has a 6-14 career record. That may not sound too encouraging but it's a better win percentage than most top-20 players can boast against Djokovic, and at the very least it means we shouldn't count Tsonga out if these two meet in a Grand Slam in 2016.

Juan Martin del Potro

And here's the real dark horse. Juan Martin del Potro has become the ultimate what-if story in tennis. Not long after dethroning Federer at the U.S. Open and asserting himself as one of the truly elite forces in the game, the powerful Argentine started dealing with recurring wrist injuries that have basically kept him out of action for years. Now he's back, talking about playing several more years, and exhibiting strong form. He likely has a ways to go before he's competing at the top again, but there may not be a hungrier player on tour. And if he gets his old game back (probably unlikely), he could be best suited to challenge Djokovic on a regular basis.

Frankly, there's no one against whom Djokovic wouldn't be a strong favorite in a Grand Slam final at this point. But these five may be the likeliest road blocks, and of the bunch, Federer and Wawrinka remain the only convincing competition for now.