Friday, 28 January 2011

Djokovic on the Brink

Fans see the over-the-top chest beating, his rivals hate the incessant bouncing of the ball before each and every serve and he has riled some peers with those imitations.

But Australian Open finalist Novak Djokovic - or the "Djoker" to those who don't know him particularly well - is a young man full of substance and class.

Just ask the 50 under-privileged Kosovo-Serb children his family invited to be courtside in Belgrade for Serbia's Davis Cup World Gorup playoff win over Australia in 2007.

A humble lot, Djokovic's parents have flipped pancakes and baked pizzas in the Serbian mountains for the past 15 years and now their talented son is turning the tennis history book on its head.

Three years after shocking the sporting world in Melbourne with a straight-sets Open semi-final defeat of Roger Federer, Djokovic has done it again to be on the brink of a second grand slam crown.

Only this time Federer - with four titles from his past five tournaments - was supposed to be back to his best. Unlike the ailing model of 2008.

This time Djokovic is new and improved, on court and off.

"There is a difference," the 23-year-old world No.3 said as he savoured his 7-6 (7-3) 7-5 6-3 victory that placed him alongside Rafael Nadal as the only players to have conquered Federer in successive grand slam encounters.

"I'm three years older and I'm a more experienced player on the court. Physically, I'm stronger.I definitely feel like that.

"Back then, I was a 20-year-old kid hitting as hard as he can with closed eyes and everything was going in. It was great. Felt great.

"Then, over the years, I faced some situations that I never faced before - pressure of defending grand slams and things like that. You grow up.

"You get this knowledge and the necessary experience. You just have to accept that as a good school and move on. That's what I did.

"I had my ups and downs throughout these two, three years, but right now I feel like I'm much stronger and more consistent and I know that I'm more stable, mentally and physically."

His career-long coach and confidant can see it too.

"Before, he was at age where he was enjoying more the jokes and he was trying to catch up. But maybe the exposure was too much," says his Slovakian mentor Marian Vajda.

"So I say to him: 'Maybe somebody doesn't like you doing these things', so he learned through that process.

"He stepped back a little bit. Sometimes he was not always able to hold his emotions. He would say: 'I didn't look good so maybe I should improve in this area'.
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"He is a more mature adult. He is more responsible now for his behaviour."

Djokovic - the youngest man ever to reach the semi-finals of all four grand slam events - has labelled Vajda his "second father" and credits his tight-knit support team as vital to his success.

"It's crucial," he said on Friday.

"They're not just my coaches, physiotherapists, doctors - they're my friends, lifetime friends.

"I have the best team in the world. What can I say, I like being around them. It's really important because you spend more time with them than my brothers and parents and girlfriend and anybody.

"So I have to take the best out of it. They're the people I can rely on on and off the court all the time.

"This is an individual sport and you're on the court and have to do your job. But one wise man told me: 'It's not the will to win that makes a winner, it's the will to prepare'.

"Basically that's a sentence I keep on telling to myself. Prepare well. That's what I do well."

Djokovic has never before prepared so well for a slam.

Despite last year's 11-month season, he had just two weeks off between leading Serbia to Davis Cup glory over France and returning to training on December 22.

"Maybe it helped him that after Davis Cup that he got a lot of motivation," Vajda said.

"Maybe not having much of a break helped keep him in shape. He didn't lose the muscles, all the fitness, the mental strength.

"But I was surprised how hard he worked and how committed he was to work.

"He enjoyed so much every practice, every fitness session. It was really good to work with him for those two weeks.

"But also now his body is getting better by age. When he was 18, 19, he was not able to gain so much the muscles.

"He was not able to hold on and do more hours of work. Now he can. He has always been naturally fast, but now he has the endurance as well.

"So maybe this is his big chance."

Djokovic once bemoaned being born in the same era as Federer and Nadal, calling himself the coyote, always trying to catch the other two.

"It seems like his game is really good now and he is able to match them now," Vajda said.

"He can match them all - Roger, Rafa, Murray, all those guys - and it is good for the game, because this generation is hungry.

"Roger is there always. He's won 16 grand slams, Rafa won three last year. They have won almost all of them from the last 25 grand slams.

"Roger he knows what he wants. He wants to go for another four years. He wants to win another 12 grand slams. Rafa wants to win another six to eight grand slams.

"Novak wants to be No.1, so that means he has to win three grand slams.

"So this is good. It is unbelievable for tennis. Just to see it, to see how tough the competition is."


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