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Djoker In The Pack Holds All The Aces

US Open 2007

Novak Djokovic© Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic is proving to be a serious threat.

Whether he's impersonating Andy Roddick and Jessica Simpson, walking down a catwalk in various states of undress or beating Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in back-to-back matches, Novak Djokovic commands center stage - and the full attention of the tennis world.

Novak Djokovic is celebrating his second ATP Masters Series title of the season at the trendy Italian restaurant Buona Notte, a popular hangout for Montreal's young, rich and beautiful. Dining on risotto and steak, Djokovic's eye is taken by the coincidental arrival of Rafael Nadal, the man whom one day earlier he had dismissed in the Rogers Masters semifinals.

A short time later, Nadal instructs his waiter to send a bottle of champagne to the champion's table.

"It was a very good bottle," says the 20-year-old. "I went over to his table to thank him and we saluted each other with the champagne. I didn't know too much about Rafa and you can't judge someone by the way they are on the court. It was a very nice gesture."

Despite being the No. 2 and No. 3 players in the world and sharing the same media manager, Djokovic and Nadal engage only on a limited basis, a deeper friendship hindered in large part by language barriers. Djokovic speaks four languages but not Spanish, leaving the players to communicate in English, Nadal's No. 3 language and one in which he is not proficient. What connects them is business: a common goal to challenge Roger Federer for the ATP World No. 1 ranking.

For three years Federer and Nadal have dominated the men's game, but Djokovic is giving every indication that he is ready to break the duopoly. In Montreal not only did he beat Nadal in the semis and Federer 7-6 in the third in the final, he also took out then-No. 3 Andy Roddick in the quarters, becoming the first player since Boris Becker in 1994 to beat the top three players in the world in the same tournament.

"I can't say I have broken the domination because it's only one tournament," Djokovic says. "We have many more tournaments this year to come and many more years to come. I am still only 20 years old. They are still the best two players in the world. But I can say that I can challenge them and that I will be a big danger for the future."

During the past three years fans have been treated to the engrossing Federer-Nadal rivalry and during the 1990s the Sampras-Agassi rivalry was on of the most riveting the game has seen. But you have to look back even further to a find the last time that a three-way rivalry headlined the sport. In the mid to late 1980s you had Lendl-Becker-Edberg and before that it was McEnroe-Connors-Lendl and, earlier still, Borg-Connors-McEnroe.

Don't expect Djokovic to vow to "chase that S.O.B. Federer to the ends of the earth," as Connors once famously said of Borg, but, at the same time, don't underestimate Djokovic's desire to be No. 1 or his conviction that he will get there.

"He's cocky, but in a good way," John McEnroe said of Djokovic while commentating for USA Network during the US Open. "He's at No. 3 already and there's definitely more upside. This guy is not going away. He says he wants to be the No. 1 player in the world, and that's saying something with Federer and Nadal ahead of you."

Clearly there is plenty of work still to be done, a full career still to be built, but Djokovic is taking time to smell the roses along the way, mixing business with pleasure. Djokovic began the week in Montreal by participating in a fashion show, ending the night on the catwalk clad only in his underwear. "Marcos Baghdatis was supposed to do it with me but then he decided not to. So I did it with an Italian guy. James Blake put me up to it."

A few weeks later, after defeating Carlos Moya in the US Open quarterfinals to reach his third consecutive Grand Slam semifinal, Djokovic had 20,000 fans in Arthur Ashe stadium roaring with laughter as he impersonated Nadal (yes, he exaggerated the Spaniard's trademark picking of his shorts) and Maria Sharapova. Earlier in the year Djokovic was the star performer of the annual ATP Player Revue during Masters Series Monte Carlo in April, parodying Andy Roddick and Jessica Simpson.

"The thing with Monte Carlo is that it's more about the improvisation, which is what makes it so funny. Andy heard about what happened in Monte Carlo during the French Open I showed it to him on the internet."

Roddick enjoyed some measure of revenge when he practiced with Djokovic at Wimbledon as the pair took turns at impersonating each other. "There were a lot of ball bounces involved and the funny backhand," Djokovic says. "He did a pretty good job."

So has Jonas Bjorkman lost his mantle as the best impersonator on tour? 'No… I don't know. We're not competing; we're just having fun. Radek Stepanek is very good at it, too."

On the subject of his ball bounces - which have been known to climb into the mid 20s before he serves - Djokovic says: "It's just my routine, my habit. Everyone has a different habit. It's one of the ways I am trying to find my concentration and focus myself. I know it's a bit irritating for my opponent, but I'm not doing it on purpose to frustrate them."

Djokovic, who says he is "very attracted to languages," speaks Serbian, English, Italian and German, and "understands a little French." He is an avid reader and a huge fan of Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. "Tennis takes a lot of physical and mental energy, but when I'm not too tired I love to read books because they are something that relax you, along with music."

Although Federer, an avid skier, keeps his skis racked for fear of injury, Djokovic last winter hit the slopes at St. Anton, Austria. "I love skiing so much and I am willing to take the risk. A lot of people tell me not to do it, but when I really want to do it no-one can stop me. I see skiing as my second sport. When I was 11, 12 years old it was my first sport but then I had to make a choice and I chose tennis."

That choice led Djokovic out of Serbia in 1999 - the year of the NATO bombing campaign - to the Niki Pilic Academy in Munich, Germany. Serbia's Top 10 stars on the WTA Tour - Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic - also went abroad to develop.

"It's very surprising that we have succeeded all together without a system back in our country. That made our development much more difficult and made us go to other countries. Jankovic was in the States, Ivanovic was in Switzerland and I was in Germany. But when you see what you've gone through, you get mental strength and motivation. We are much stronger now and appreciate things more."

Their success has created a surge in interest in tennis - Serbia's Davis Cup tie with Australia will be played before a sold-out crowd of 20,000 (a record for a tie other than a final) - and will undoubtedly inspire future generations of Serbian players who will likely be nurtured in newly-created tennis programs.

"Our country doesn't have a strong tennis tradition but lately we've had a big boom," Djokovic says. "For 20 years there was no interest in tennis so it was very difficult to practice and develop. But now things are much different. People recognize us everywhere and greet us. We are now big celebrities.

"Here in the United States probably 90 percent of people wouldn't know of the country Serbia. But when you see that the No. 3 player in the world and the No. 5 player in the world come from Serbia, people will get interested in Serbia. That makes us the biggest ambassadors of the country."

The next generation of Serbian players to hit the pro tour may well include Djokovic's younger brothers, Marko and Djorde, who for now enjoy the chance to snap photos with other ATP stars in the player lounge when they tag along with Novak. Marko, who like his brother before him, has moved to Germany to train, played doubles with Novak at July's Croatia Open (they lost in the first round). Djorde remains in Belgrade where he juggles school and practice.

"They are trying to follow in my footsteps. On the one hand it's very good for them to have an older brother who is No. 3 in the world because I can give them a lot of help and advice, but on the other hand they have a lot of pressure because everyone expects them to succeed. They try to follow me to the tournaments whenever they can, but they have school and their own practice."

Djokovic's rise to the top of the men's game has been nothing short of meteoric. In his first full season on the ATP tour in 2005, Djokovic (No. 83) was the youngest player in the year-end Top 100 at 18 years, 5 months. In his second full season Djokovic won two titles (Amersfoort, Metz), 40 matches and finished at No. 16.

It's been a combination of talent, hard work and smart choices, including a pioneering decision to hire a volleying coach, Australian doubles legend Mark Woodforde, to complement the direction of his Slovak coach, Marian Vajda. "It showed a lot of maturity for a 19 year old to recognize that there was a deficiency in his game," Woodforde said. "He knew he needed to improve that area in order to break the dominance of Federer and Nadal."

That maturity, along with his unwavering focus and commitment, is also part of what has distinguished Djokovic from his youthful super-talented peers like Marcos Baghdatis, Richard Gasquet, Tomas Berdych and Andy Murray. Djokovic's unrelenting rise more closely resembles that of a 20-year-old Lleyton Hewitt in 2001, whose run to No. 1 encountered no speed bumps. (Granted, today, Federer and Nadal seem more like road blocks.)

In 2007, after Djokovic reached the final of the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells and won the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami during a stunning run in March, the Serb surged to No. 7 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings. ran a poll asking fans where they thought he would finish the year. One third of the 28,000 respondents said he would finish at No. 3 (a mark he hit little more than three months later on July 9), with another eight percent saying they thought he could crack the Top 2.

Djokovic saw the poll and had a hearty laugh at the time. But now things seem far less fanciful.

"I honestly didn't expect to rise to No. 3 so fast. But I feel that I deserved it. I didn't just have one good result. I had some great results, especially in the big events, like reaching the semis at the French and Wimbledon and winning Masters Series titles in Miami and Montreal and other titles, too. I have had an incredible year and for now I am behind Roger and Rafa."

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