Friday, 28 January 2011

Mature Djokovic

By the middle of the second set in their Australian Open semifinal, it was apparent that Roger Federer could not hurt Novak Djokovic. Heaven knows he tried. Over the years, he has tried in more ways than one.

It's easy to forget that in the early episodes of this rivalry, Federer was known to step out of character with some decidedly pointed commentary. Generally a pillar of class, comportment and respect, Federer simply didn't like the fast-rising Serbian player -- and he didn't mind saying it. I'm sure the memory only heightened Djokovic's sense of satisfaction at Rod Laver Arena Thursday night, although he felt it entirely unnecessary to mention.

The fact is, Djokovic is a thoroughly delightful person who has overcome untold obstacles: the horror of his native Belgrade being bombed during his childhood, stressful play under pressure, a pretty well-deserved reputation for hypochondria, fellow players scoffing at his hilarious on-court impressions, and a tendency to wilt in conditions of extreme heat.

We find him now a complete man: secure, decorated and on top of the world, especially after leading Serbia past France in that dramatic Davis Cup final last month. Privately, Federer must be marveling at how far Djokovic has come -- both physically and emotionally. He certainly accords a measure of respect that never existed before.

In one of their earliest matches, back in 2006, Federer was openly riled by Djokovic's somewhat dubious medical timeouts. "I think it's a joke when it comes to his injuries," said Federer. "I was happy to beat him. The rules are there to be used, not abused." When the two met a year later in Monaco, Federer became infuriated by the chatter of Djokovic's parents -- at one point turning around to mutter, "Be quiet" -- and in the ensuing weeks, Federer was quick to remind people that Djokovic "gave up" that day when he retired with an injury in the second set.

At this stage, Djokovic had a feeling he had truly arrived on tour; the greatest player of them all was taking jabs at him. Before their 2008 final in Montreal, Federer told reporters he "wasn't that impressed" with Djokovic, and after Novak pulled off a shocking upset, Federer called it "insignificant."

By the time Djokovic arrived at the '08 U.S. Open, his physical ailments were being questioned by many players (especially Andy Roddick, in the interview room), and in the wake of some bitter comments toward the crowd after defeating Roddick in the quarterfinals, he lost to Federer while being heckled into a shell. Djokovic had become little more than a sad, passive individual, and he sounded as if he'd aged a decade over a two-year period.

Although Federer now gives Djokovic some well-earned plaudits, he still claims that the Serb gets illegal coaching from his supporters, quietly making that claim to the umpire a couple of times during Thursday night's match. More to the point, Djokovic was simply the better player. He didn't need the slightest bit of coaching. He covered the court better, struck his finishing groundstrokes with more consistency, served better in the clutch. It didn't necessarily signal a changing of the guard, but it was a vastly significant match for both men as a new tennis year begins.

"You have to be patient, put some varieties and get Roger out of his comfort zone," Djokovic said afterward. "You have to try to get him on the run as much as you can, and try to let him know you're there to win."

That captured Djokovic's on-court presence as much as any shot. Unlike so many of Federer's opponents, Djokovic had a pretty good idea he'd take him down. Here's to an uplifting tale of ascent -- and a prediction that Djokovic defeats Andy Murray for the title Sunday night. The man is playing far too well to be derailed.

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