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The 'Djoker' Comes Of Age

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Novak Djokovic© Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic celebrates his Australian Open triumph with his family.

The on-court impersonations first catapulted an up-and-coming Novak Djokovic into the spotlight two years ago, but the Serbian has since established himself as a Grand Slam champion embracing the expectations and responsibilities of a top contender.

Sadly for some, those days of hilarious impersonations by Novak Djokovic are gone. Not everyone found them funny, leastways not some of those who were mimicked, and the last thing the young Serbian ever wanted to do was cause offence or be seen as a clown. Not that he has lost his sense of humour, but he knows that winning Grand Slams is a serious business and to that end he wants to be taken very seriously indeed.

In the 12 months since he won the Australian Open, the 21-year-old Djokovic has emerged as a contender in the proper sense of the word. He may have been No. 3 in the world when he reached the final of the 2007 US Open but no one really regarded him as a contender. In those duopolistic days, Grand Slams and ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events were really only about Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The fact that it no longer is can be attributed to Djokovic’s determination to break up the party.

Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Roddick may all be genuine contenders in Melbourne during the next fortnight (as might Nikolay Davydenko had he not got injured), but it was Djokovic who gave them the self-belief that they could win titles in the company of Federer and Nadal and, if necessary, beat them in order to do so – at least on hard courts. Djokovic is still No. 3 but with a difference: he is now a Grand Slam champion and a Tennis Masters Cup champion to boot, which means not only does he now think more of himself – in a nice way of course – but so, too, do his rivals.

There is no doubt that he has improved as a player since winning in Melbourne last year. He finished the year much stronger than the previous one; at the 2007 Tennis Masters Cup he didn’t win a single match. But this, of course, is where it starts to get tricky. It could be said that in all four cities where he lifted a trophy last year – Melbourne, Indian Wells, Rome and Shanghai – Djokovic came with a blind-side run. Playing without pressure is a luxury all sportsmen long for, but something that is not afforded to the favourites and nor will it now be to Djokovic, at least not in the first five months of this year when he defends three of those titles.

“Of course there is going to be a certain amount of expectation and pressure – obviously, as I’m a Grand Slam champion,” said Djokovic at the Brisbane International, where he lost in the first round to Ernests Gulbis, “but I will try to use it in my favour as a positive challenge. If you’re intending to be one of the best players in the world you just have to cope with it.”

Perhaps only now will Djokovic – and the reigning ATP World Tour Champion Nadal, for that matter – begin to understand the pressure that Federer lived under during his extraordinary five years of unbridled success – and still does to a certain extent. “I’ve created a monster,” said the former World No. 1 after Djokovic beat him in last year’s Australian Open semi-finals, the first player to do so in straight sets in 102 Grand Slam matches.

The fact that Djokovic has limited interviews other than those he is contracted to do during his stay in Australia shows he intends to keep his own little monster firmly under control. “Sometimes it’s better not to have too much attention because it kind of releases the pressure and you can play a bit more relaxed,” he said. “That’s when you really perform your best tennis.”

He has flown into Australia later than usual. Normally he likes to play the Hopman Cup, but this year he decided to spend New Year’s Eve at home in Belgrade. After his end-of-year efforts in China he deserved a decent break. Ideally, like most players, he would have liked five weeks’ preparation but has had to make do with the usual 10 days’ endurance work in the Serbian mountains – “trying to get fresh air into my lungs” – followed by two and a half weeks at his Monaco base where he concentrated on fitness and practice.

“Step by step” is one of his favourite phrases, so he won’t be tempted to talk about his chances of becoming No. 2 by the end of this Grand Slam, although it is a real possibility. “I believe that I have the quality to reach the top spot in the upcoming year or next couple of years or 10 years. This is my lifetime goal. But I learned a lesson: if I pay too much attention to rankings, it doesn’t go the right way. You can spend too much energy trying to achieve something that may or may not be realistic at this time. So I just want to improve my game and the results will show up.”

One senses he wouldn’t mind facing Federer again just so he can prove that the glandular fever the Swiss suffered from during last year’s Open wasn’t a factor in the outcome of that match. “He didn’t seem sick or feeling bad to me,” said Djokovic. “He was moving well, playing pretty well, okay maybe making some unforced errors, but it’s not a matter of health if you make unforced errors. Maybe the opponent was playing well – and I was! I’ve never felt so superior in a tournament. I lost only one set, in the final.”

Which brings us neatly to Tsonga, whom, one senses, he wouldn’t be quite so keen to face again. The strapping young Frenchman made Djokovic work hard for his first Grand Slam title, and, interestingly, in the three matches they have played against each other since has beaten Djokovic every time, including once in the Masters Cup. “I was playing alright in all three matches, leading in the first sets and then suddenly I just started dropping – he used it, he used it wisely. It’s something that can’t happen again.”

Not surprisingly, the Muhammad Ali lookalike is included among the new faces that Djokovic believes has been for the good of the game, certainly better for it than repeats of the Roger and Rafa show. “It was great to see the rivalry but not so good for the sport because you’re not introduced to the other players,” he said.

“Tsonga is coming up, he’s physically very fit, he’s one of the strongest players in the world and obviously motivated after a big success in the last three months of the year [Tsonga won the Thailand Open and BNP Paribas Masters]. Then there’s Gilles Simon – we cannot forget him – Murray, Davydenko and Roddick. It’s going to be very interesting.”

Djokovic was a popular winner last year and nothing would give him greater pleasure than to be so again. He was popular in New York, too – particular after his on-court impersonation of Maria Sharapova – until, that is, last year’s US Open when he allowed jibes from Roddick about his injury time-outs against Tommy Robredo in the previous round to get to him. Having a dig back at the Flushing Meadows crowd wasn’t his smartest move, as he later conceded.

At least the proud Serbian has never been afraid to speak his mind, even if it also got him into trouble when he came out against Kosovo’s declaration of independence last year. There were even reports that Albanian extremists had threatened to kidnap him, which he refused to comment on in Shanghai.

Speaking earlier in the year on the Kosovo situation, he said: “I’m not too afraid because I did something that I felt in my heart was right to do. Maybe I would do more things if I had the time, but my life is not allowing me. I will stick to the sport. I do what I need to do on the court and I represent my country in a great way.”

Indeed he does. One thing is sure, Player Council meetings are unlikely to be dull affairs now that he’s a member. He has already been instrumental in bringing an ATP tournament to Serbia this year, a fitting recognition for the incredible strides made by both Serbian men and women in recent years and not least by Djokovic.

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