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6:01PM

Djokovic, from comedian to champion

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.

6:48PM

Djokovic stays cool in a very hot U.S. Open

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — The air was unhealthy. The heat index was unreal. It was sport in a steam bath, officials intervening, players withdrawing, everybody — on court or in the stands — more concerned with what was on the thermometer (the temperature reached 95 degrees) than what was on the scorecards. 

This is America’s tennis championship, the U.S. Open, and so far no one has been able to whip that feisty lady Mother Nature. She’s been in control from the first match. “Extreme weather conditions,” was the official announcement. Are they ever.

The end of summer in New York, Odell Beckham Jr. getting headlines on the front and back page of the New York Post for signing with the football Giants; the Yankees losing ground in their attempt to overtake the Red Sox; and Roger Federer and Serena Williams back at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, out where the Mets play at Citi Field and the jets swoop low when they land at LaGuardia.

The Open is noisy, as is everything in New York; exciting, since if you can make it here you can make it anywhere; and hot, although rarely as hot as this August, when on Tuesday five men — none of them named Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal — withdrew because of conditions so severe that it was decided to give everyone a 10-minute break before a possible third set.

There are now retractable roofs on two of the courts, including the main one, the 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Court, but understandably officials from the U.S. Tennis Association do not want to close the roofs unless there is rain. Players under cover would have an unfair advantage over those on the outside courts.

Not that those in the night matches, Federer and Maria Sharapova among them on Tuesday, don’t have an advantage over those out in the midday sun, which as the lyrics go is for mad dogs and Englishmen. And on Tuesday for Djokovic, a 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-0 winner over Martin Fucsovics, and Caroline Wozniacki, who beat one-time champ Sam Stosur, 6-3, 6-2.

“Yeah, it was very hot conditions for sure,” said Wozniacki, the Australian Open champion. “I just tried to stay cool. We got a little lucky. In the shade, I was able to cool down a little bit. So that helped.”

Marin Cilic, who won the Open four years ago, was a winner when his opponent quit — well, the explanation is “retired” — at 1-1 in the third set after losing the first two sets, 7-6, 6-1.

“Conditions were extremely tough,’ said Cilic. ”Very humid, very hot. The ball was flying a bit more than usual, so I was having a tough time trying to control it. I was missing some easy balls, making unforced errors that are not that usual for me.”

He won. Whatever the situation, the better players inevitably do, which is why they are the better players.

Djokovic was the best player a couple of years ago, in the rankings and in the minds of most others. He had a stretch of four straight Grand Slams, from the 2015 U.S. Open through the 2016 French Open. Then he collapsed.

Maybe because of a bad elbow. Maybe because of reported family troubles. Now, after a win at Wimbledon a month and a half ago and victory over Federer in Canada, he’s back.

He did worry Tuesday because he said the heat made him feel sick during his match, even asking for assistance. The No. 6 seed, Djokovic recovered while taking the 10-minute break before the fourth set and then breezed without losing a game.

Argentine Leonardo Mayer, one of those who couldn’t finish, said of the allowed recess, “Ten minutes? I would have needed an hour and a half.”   

Djokovic and Fucsovics only needed to take an ice bath. That was cool, in more than one way.

12:48PM

Wimbledon’s last act: An anticlimax starring Djokovic

By Art Spander

WMBLEDON, England — In this land where Shakespeare wrote, “This blessed plot, this realm, this England,” Wimbledon 2018 went against the basic rule of theatre and fiction.

After a fantastic build-up, hours of suspense and history, the conclusion to the tale was anti-climatic.

Not because Novak Djokovic triumphed — he’s a one-man show full of subplots — but that his 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (3) victory over a weary Kevin Anderson in the final Sunday was hardly what we had hoped.

Although it’s probably what many expected.

It was flat and lifeless, a dreary contrast to the semifinals, which were wonderfully competitive if, in this modern age of instant gratification, a bit too long — well, more than a bit.

Anderson needed 6 hours, 36 minutes for his win over John Isner in one semi, finishing 26-24 in the fifth set; Djokovic needed 5 hours 16 minutes (and two days) to get past Rafael Nadal, finishing 10-8 in the fifth set. How do you top that?

You don’t. You get too overly tired players, if one, Djokovic, now a four-time Wimbledon winner and 13-time Grand Slam winner, has the pedigree and the better all-around game. And no less significantly, as he mentioned, the experience in Wimbledon finals.

It’s not fair, perhaps, to describe the game of the 6-foot-8 Anderson, a South African who played for the University of Illinois and lives in Florida, as the tennis version of a one-note samba. But his strength is his serve. And against Djokovic, one of best returners ever, Anderson’s strength was a weakness.

Serving to open the match on yet another glorious 85-degree afternoon, Anderson was broken. You sensed his opportunity was, too. “Novak beat up on me pretty bad,” said Anderson. He now has been in two Slam finals, losing in the 2017 U.S Open to Nadal.

From 2013 through early 2016, Djokovic, now 31, owned men’s tennis, Of the 16 Grand Slams over that period he won seven and was in five other finals. He won four in a row, starting with the 2015 U.S. Open through the 2016 French.

Then at the 2016 Wimbledon, he hurt his elbow. That, along with some coaching changes — Boris Becker out, Andre Agassi out — and rumored family problems, dropped him into a void.

Djokovic finally underwent surgery on the elbow in February.

“After that, I had a really good recovery,” he said. “I thought maybe too fast. I wasn’t ready to compete ... It took me several months to regain the confidence, go back to basics. I had to trust the process ... Playing against Nadal in the semifinals here was the biggest test that I could have, specifically for that, just to see if I could prevail.”

Djokovic is from Serbia, and while he speaks English well he tends to sound as if the words were linked together by, no, not Shakespeare, but a government employee — if one with the great ability to cover every inch of a tennis court.

He was aware of his opponent’s tactics — and tiredness, although Djokovic had fewer than 24 hours to recover from the Nadal semi.

“I knew Kevin spent plenty of time on the court in the quarters (a five-set win over Roger Federer) and semis, marathon wins. I did too. He had a day to recover. But at the same time, I knew it was his first Wimbledon finals, and it really is a different sensation when you’re in the finals.

“It was my fifth, and I tried to use that experience, that mental edge that I have, to start off the right way. The first game, I made a break of serve that was a perfect possible start. After that, I cruised for two sets.”

Anderson, 32, conceded he was nervous. And he said his body “didn’t feel great.”

Nor did the match, which required only 2 hours, 19 minutes (Anderson’s fifth set against Isner alone was some three hours).

“I didn’t play great tennis in the beginning,” said Anderson. “I definitely felt much better in the third set. I thought I had quite a few opportunities to win that third set.

“I would have loved to push it to another set, but obviously it wasn’t meant to be.”


9:03PM

Is Djokovic’s problem in his elbow — or in his head?

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The question now, after he has been eliminated in the first round of only the second tournament he entered this year — a tournament he's won five times — is whether the problem is in Novak Djokovic’s elbow or his head. Or both.

Tennis is a tough game, physically, mentally. The pros fly literally around the world. There’s no true off-season. Worse, unlike, say baseball, there’s no DL, disabled list. So people keep trying to play instead of trying to recover.

Then, of course, if and when they do recover, is the no-less-important issue of preparation, You can hit dozens of practice shots, but once a match begins, well, let Djokovic describe his failing Sunday in the BNP Paribas tournament at Indian Wells.

“Very weird," he explained. “I just completely lost rhythm. For me, it felt like the first match I ever played on the tour.”

It was the first match against Taro Daniel, a qualifier who is ranked 109th. The first match after losing in the fourth round of the Australian Open in January. And, of course, the first loss to Daniel. The score was 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-1, and it left Daniel as bewildered as, well, Djokovic.

“The Djokovic I know is like the Djokovic I have seen on TV, and he never misses a ball; he puts the ball wherever he wants,” said Daniel, who was born in New York. “Today, obviously he was missing a lot of balls, but even then you still have to beat him.”

Or let him beat himself.

We’re not talking just any opponent here. This is a man who a year and half ago dominated men’s tennis, winning in order the 2015 Wimbledon, 2016 U.S. Open, 2017 Australian and, not least since it’s on clay, the 2017 French Open. No one had held all four Grand Slams since the great Rod Laver in 1969. Then...

Was it the elbow? Was it rumored off-court problems? Was it a sense of no more worlds to conquer?, A year ago here at Indian Wells I asked Djokovic whether he relaxed after earning the French, which Roger Federer only won once, which John McEnroe and Pete Sampras never won. He conceded that was the case.

But in 12 months, missing time with the elbow injury, struggling in some matches, he has dropped from an uncatchable first in the ATP rankings to 10th. And now he’s gone one match into Indian Wells. 

He had surgery on the elbow in the beginning of February — “a small medical intervention,” he described it. Perhaps more time is needed to heal. Perhaps like some ballplayers, Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Sax, Rick Ankiel come to mind, Djokovic, although not with the yips, is unable to make the shot he once made.

Djokovic is 30, and while Roger Federer, for one, sneers at age — he won the Australian a month and a half ago at 37 — everyone’s body is different. Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, all have fallen victim to wear and tear. The stars keep pushing themselves, traveling from Doha to Melbourne to, yes, Indian Wells, to please sponsors and to embellish their rankings. The other day, Federer said how much delight he felt to return to No. 1.

“It’s life, you know,” said Djokovic. “God always challenges you when you expect it the least.” 

No cracks here that God has a poor backhand.

“Yeah, everything, nerves were there,” Djokovic said of his flaws against Daniel. “I made so many unforced errors that it was just one of those days where you are not able to find the rhythm from the baseline, especially from the backhand side.

“That has always been a rock-solid shot for me throughout my career. Just some inexplicable, uncharacteristic errors, but that’s I guess all part of those particular circumstances that I’m in at the moment.”

Djokovic said he had no expectations and just wanted to go out and see what would happen.

“I was not even supposed to be here,” he said, “because the surgery was only five, six weeks ago. But I recovered quickly and got myself ready. I’m sitting here talking after a lost match. It’s not something that I as an athlete want, but at the same time there is a reason everything happens in life.”

He just has to find the reason, and that never is easy.

10:30AM

French win proved all too satisfying for the Joker

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The Joker, they call him, and there were times that Novak Djokovic — yes, the “D” is silent — with his skill at mimicry could make us laugh. But now, after a year when triumph was muted by disappointment, he sees life and tennis from a different view.

Once at the top, of course, as the line goes in the musical Evita, it’s a long, long way to fall. Djokovic didn’t tumble that far, but not only did he fail to win either of last two Grand Slam tournaments, after winning the previous four in succession, he dropped from the No. 1 ranking to behind Andy Murray.

Progression worked against him. A great start, an unsatisfying finish. Four straight Grand Slam victories, beginning with the 2015 Wimbledon and climaxing with the 2016 French Open, his first win there.

Satisfaction worked against him. Asked if after the French he subconsciously relaxed, Djokovic unhesitatingly answered, “Yes.”

And why not? Since the start of the Open era in tennis, April 1968, only four men had won each of the four Slams: Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Now this agile Serb had become the fifth.

“It was the crowning achievement for me,” said a candid Djokovic. “The French was a priority, but it took a lot of emotion out of me.”

He was sitting in the interview room Thursday at the BNP Paribas Open, the defending champ, seemingly relaxed, unquestionably honest — with himself and the media. It was hot outside, 91 degrees in this desert community some 15 miles southeast of Palm Springs, but inside the air conditioning was working its magic.

“Generally, I see myself in perspective from the end of last season,” said Djokovic. He will be 30 in May, and despite the struggles after the French, relatively speaking — a third-round loss at Wimbledon, a finals loss at the U.S. Open, a quick departure from the Rio Olympics — he was still considered the man to beat.

“I feel much better in terms of my game from the mental side, than I was some months ago,” he said.

The pressure never ceases, pressure to advance when you’re young, pressure to persist as you become established.

“No doubt there’s pressure,” agreed Djokovic. “It’s part of the work. It means we’re doing something that is worthy and has value.

“Something that I always dreamed of doing on such a high level. Certainly as one of the top players, one of favorites to win a Grand Slam, you put pressure on yourself.”

Until winning the French, until making history.

The years and the service returns and the forehands caught up with him. It was as if he said, “Phew. That’s over.” But in the competitive world of tennis, it’s never over until as long as you’re on the court, especially when you have a reputation to enhance.

“I don’t regret things in my life,” said Djokovic, who has won 12 Slams, fourth highest behind Federer, 18, and Nadal and Pete Sampras, 14 each.

“But maybe I should have taken a long break after the French to recharge emotionally. It didn’t happen. I just kept going.”

Not very far in results but, Djokovic said, a considerable distance in his mind.

“It was a lesson to be learned,” he said. “I think those four to five months the second part of 2016 were very important to me, for my growth as a player, as a human being.

“Particularly after the U.S. Open. Then 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 is in the tough part of the draw at Indian Wells, a tournament he’s won five times previously. In his bottom quarter are Federer, a four-time winner, Nadal, a two-time champ, and Nick Kyrgios.

“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.”

You might say it’s no Djoke.