Djokovic, from comedian to champion
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Art Spander in Novak Djokovic, U.S. Open, articles, tennis

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — He used to be more comedian than champion. Novak Djokovic could imitate the physical idiosyncrasies of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for laughs. Then he began to beat them, and the laughter turned into accolades.

His style gets on the nerves of some. A New Yorker article said his detractors call him “Djoko-bitch.” His father ran a pizzeria in a Serbian mountain community that was home to a ski resort in winter and a tennis and basketball complex after the snow melted.

He was labeled “The Third Man,” the assumption that he was behind Federer and Nadal and ahead of recovering Andy Murray, when the sport’s big four are mentioned. He can be arrogant, but he also acts self-effacing.

On a very warm Labor Day, Monday, Djokovic disposed of the less-accomplished Joao Sousa of Portugal, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3, in a fourth-round match to advance to the U.S. Open quarterfinals, and then moved to the microphone for his thoughts and words — the latter in virtually flawless English, one of five languages in which he is able to converse.

This is a comeback year of sorts for Djokovic, 31, who missed weeks of competition before undergoing surgery on his right elbow in February. His win at Wimbledon in June not only indicated he had returned to brilliance but also was his 13th Grand Slam.

Federer has 20, of course, and Nadal, who is the same age as Djokovic, has 17. Djokovic, who has a winning record against both of them, was pressed to consider his place in history, since there wasn’t much to talk about regarding the Sousa match other than the 90-degree heat.

Marriage, two children and the natural progression of growing older have turned Djokovic from the flippant mime of a decade past into a more reflective and responsible individual. Also, unmentioned, he is a more successful one. The confidence comes through.

“Once you win more than a match against your top rival,” he said, probably meaning Nadal but not excluding Federer, “you have maybe a little bit of a mental advantage. It just depends, again, on how you feel playing against them, which kind of surface, what time of year and so forth.

“I feel my rivalry with Nadal especially is quite amazing as well. We played the most matches against each other than any other two tennis players ever in the game.”

Fifty two, with Djokovic holding a 27-25 edge.

And yet Djokovic alluded to a documentary, Strokes of Genius, built around Nadal’s epic win over Federer in the Wimbledon final of 2008.

“I watched a couple days ago,” he said. “That was really cool. I was glued to the TV, watching Rafa and Roger, really celebrating the greatness that they really are. I feel like these guys have been role models on court and off.”

Asked what stood out for him about the film, Djokovic said he wasn’t watching the actual match 10 years ago.

“But through the documentary,” he explained, “I could actually understand how good that match was, with interruptions of the rain and everything; Nadal losing a couple of finals in a row and then getting back ands fighting hard and showing a champion's sprit; Roger going back from two sets down, saving match points.”   

So rare, until their retirement, their dotage, to hear great athletes discuss other great athletes with awe and respect. So few don’t want to allow the other man, the other team, to get a psychological advantage.

The mental edge is as important in tennis, a sport in which self-belief counts as much — maybe more — than a forehand or backhand.            

Consider Sousa, 45th in the rankings, facing Djokovic, the No. 6 seed with all those major titles. “It was very special for me,” said Sousa, “to play out there against a great player like Novak is. We were suffering in the heat. But no excuse. I think he was the better player today.”

The better player and the more introspective.

“I felt a huge relief when I won Wimbledon this year,” said Djokovic, “because of the period of the last couple of years before that, what I’ve been through with the injury, inspiring myself to get back on the track and try to win majors and be one of the best players in the world.”

A very accessible goal.

Article originally appeared on Art Spander (http://artspander.com/).
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