January 30, 2011

His Time Has Come

Novak Djokovic has said before that he was born in the wrong era for men's tennis -- that if he were just a few years older or younger he could have won a slew of Grand Slam trophies by now and sat firmly in the top spot in the sport. Instead he had to contend with the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who've combined to win all but two of the last thirty Majors and have together been ranked #1 for almost seven years.

He was criticized for the statement, accused of being too cocky and dismissive, but when you think about it, it's probably not far from the truth. Djokovic had been firmly implanted in the top three for years, even making a jump to #2 for a few weeks here and there. Way before his heart-pounding win over Federer at last year's U.S. Open he had racked up seventeen titles, including four Masters trophies and a year-end championship, producing wins over the elite players to earn them.

Nole also had a championship in Melbourne, of course, but that was eleven Slams ago, and questions were being asked when and whether the next one was coming. He had trouble with his serve early last year and got rid of advisor Todd Martin, who'd he'd brought on about twelve months earlier to help his game. He often seemed to suffer in long, grueling matches, bringing his fitness under fire during five-setters. And yes, he had Major runs ended by Roger and Rafa, but he also lost to Jurgen Melzer, Tommy Haas and Philipp Kohlschreiber.

But something changed when he got back Down Under this year. After winning all his matches at the Hopman Cup, Djokovic came to Melbourne a week early and started his main draw firing on all cylinders. He had a slight hiccup against Ivan Dodig in the second round, but was relentless against a tough Nicolas Almagro and unforgiving versus Tomas Berdych, who incidentally ousted him at Wimbledon in 2010. In the semis against Federer, he repeated his performance in New York, but this time never found himself lagging -- after holding serve the entire first set, he didn't allow Roger to serve out the second and held on to his lead in the third for his only straight set win over the defending champ since that maiden title run in 2008.

Djokovic was the on-paper favorite in the finals, and though I knew he'd put up a fight, admittedly I wasn't convinced he'd ultimately prevail. Sure, he was higher-ranked than opponent Andy Murray, had an extra's day rest coming into the match, lead the pair's head-to-head by the slightest of margins. But the Scot had won his last three meetings with Nole, denying him titles in both Cincinnati and Miami, so he had some momentum of his own. He'd been no slouch in his first six matches, dropping only a handful of games early and finding a way to get aggressive when he found himself down against David Ferrer in the semis. He also had some luck on his side -- originally slated to meet Robin Soderling, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer if he were to win the title, he'd seen his path cleared by others and seemed rather fresh on Sunday. After two Major final appearances without so much as a set to his name, it looked like it might be his turn to finally capture the Slam.

I'm not sure anyone expected what we got.

The two kept it close to start. An amazing twelve-minute second game gave Djokovic a chance to get the early break, but when Murray eventually held it looked like this would not only go the distance, but it would be a marathon. Eight games later, when Nole converted for the first set, I thought last year's runner-up would raise his game like he did against Ferrer, but in twenty minutes he found himself in a 5-0 hole -- a bit later he was down two sets. There were some astonishing rallies, smart shot-making on both sides of the net, but Murray, usually so quick on his feet, found himself unable to get to balls well within his reach and became visibly and audibly frustrated with himself. Though he fought back to three-all in the third, Djokovic got the deciding break in the set and never looked back.

The win for Djokovic is more important than another feather in his cap. So frequently an also-ran in this sport, he made a statement with this championship, convincingly defeating the best in the game -- three top ten players among them. He's got to know now that he can beat anyone in the sport on any stage, and with the insurance Slam trophy soon to reside securely on his mantle, he is no longer in danger of being dubbed a one-hit wonder.

And his contemporaries notwithstanding, he might just add a few more titles to his name and make a run for that top spot. After all, he's already gotten this year off to the perfect start.

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