For the past year, the established superstars of men’s tennis have found that the joke is very much on them, in more ways than one.
Novak Djokovic’s dramatic ascent to the summit of the sport has come like a whirlwind; sudden, unexpected and in so many ways a perfect storm of success.
For so many years he was known for his misfortune at being part of the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal era – and for his hilarious impressions of other players. Now the 24-year-old is the man to beat at this year’s U.S. Open.
Djokovic got serious about his career over the last 12 months, ditching pizza, pasta and other products containing gluten as part of a dietary overhauling that supercharged his fitness. But he did not lose his sense of humor. His famous mimicking ability, which had fellow pros in stitches in locker rooms across the globe before gradually entering the public domain thanks to YouTube, shows little sign of slowing down.
A favorite victim of Djokovic is Maria Sharapova, so much so that he has impersonated the women’s world No. 4 as part of an elaborate advertising campaign for their joint sponsor, HEAD. He even dons a blond wig.
While fans generally love the humor, there is a somewhat mixed reaction to Djokovic’s hijinks on tour. Roger Federer doesn’t appreciate the jokes, Andy Roddick isn’t a fan and Rafa Nadal merely shakes his head with wry bemusement when asked about it.
Federer doesn’t like a few things about Djokovic, who has an extraordinary record of 59-2 so far this season following his 6-0, 6-0, 6-2 demolition of Argentina’s Carlos Berlocq in the second round on Thursday night. Federer became annoyed during the Serb’s semifinal victory during this year’s Australian Open semifinal victory with what he saw as the excessive cheering coming from Djokovic’s box. The upstart's friends, family and coaches were hooting, hollering and screaming support – all with the player’s full blessing and encouragement.
Perhaps most of all, Federer surely doesn’t like the emergence of an extra threat to his dominance. Nadal is now far from being the only legitimate foe to meet him on level terms, with Djokovic having begun the year by steamrolling his way through the Australian Open and even invading Federer’s fiefdom of Wimbledon to claim his third career major on the hallowed lawns of west London in mid-summer.
The U.S. Open is his favorite tournament, which is why he is such a favorite at Flushing Meadows. Djokovic has never failed to reach the semifinal here for the past four years, although he will consider nothing less than the title an acceptable outcome this time around. Thursday’s performance was nothing short of ominous for his rivals, as he won 14 straight games before routing Berlocq.
Proof, if any more was needed, that the man known as the Djoker is very earnest about on court matters.
“Any time I have ever done my impressions it has only ever been for fun,” Djokovic said. “It is all in good spirit and trying to have a good time and enjoy myself. Tennis is a difficult game and we have a long year and a lot of traveling and matches so it is nice to keep things relaxed sometimes.
“When you are relaxed you have more energy and it is good for your mentality. If you are happy and having fun then you have a chance to play your best tennis. People shouldn’t think that having fun and laughing mean I am not serious about tennis, if they underestimate me like that it is a mistake.”
Djokovic has won nine titles already this year and is utterly rampant. He has gone 5-0 against Nadal in 2011, lost only to Federer at the French Open and Andy Murray in Cincinnati, and is positioned to complete one of the greatest calendar years in tennis history.
He has never lacked for talent. Perhaps, though, there has been a slight dearth of dedication and will against the top two in the past. That mental block is now well and truly shattered and there is little argument at this point about who is the best player in the world.
“He is just on fire,” Murray said. “You can see the confidence in him and his game is at an incredibly high level right now.”
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The Djokovic serve, for so long a weakness, is now a genuine weapon, and combined with relentless and brutal groundstrokes from both sides, there is no respite for countless hapless opponents.
“I am playing the best tennis of my life,” Djokovic said. “I think everything in general just came together. Progress can be a slow process and it takes a while to really understand the game, understand the life that I'm having, and you learn from your mistakes obviously.
“You try to get better as a person and as a player each day you wake up. I think it's really important as well to carry yourself off the court in a good way. I am aware of the responsibility that I have as a present No. 1 to represent the sport as well in some ways off the court. So I need to do that in the best possible way.”
Both Federer and Nadal have been lauded for years for their phenomenal sportsmanship. But while Djokovic does things a little differently there are no decisive arguments to suggest he is any less of a positive influence for the game’s image.
And whether he is or isn’t, chances are he is going to be around deep into this tournament. Realistically, there is no one until Federer in a potential semifinal match-up who can test him fully, with Nikolay Davydenko up next.
Davydenko is one of the tour’s most understated characters, and certainly not fodder for impersonation. In all likelihood he will be just another victim, as the juggernaut of men’s tennis smiles his way down an inexorable path.
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