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Bring back the pompous Djokovic

9/29/2009

After beating Radek Stepanek at this year's U.S. Open, Novak Djokovic "challenged" Johnny Mac to a hit in front of the late-night crowd. It was classic Djoker, a moment that revealed his charisma and desire to be in the spotlight. Unfortunately, the 2008 Australian Open champion hasn't been in the spotlight for much else, unless you count a striptease he did in Montreal.

Although he's still clearly one of the elite players in the world, Djokovic seems to have lost his cutting edge on the court when it matters most. This season, despite winning two small titles, he came up short in five other tour-level finals and failed to seriously challenge for a major championship. He meekly retired in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open (the heat and the Djoker apparently don't mix) and lost in the third round of the French Open to Philipp Kohlschreiber and the quarterfinals of Wimbledon to Tommy Haas.

But it was his defeat at the hands of Roger Federer in the U.S. Open semifinals that, if you're a Djokovic fan, is most troublesome. Yes, the score (7-6, 7-5, 7-5) was close, but the match wasn't. Though Federer played well enough, Djokovic never looked like he believed he could win. Perhaps he should have borrowed a pair of shoes from Melanie Oudin. The Djokovic of old, the one who crashed the scene in '08, would have had a chip on his shoulder and not shown Federer so much deference. Instead, we got a smiling, seemingly content Djoker who had all the bite of a Chihuahua.

What happened to the player with the smug mug who delighted in the opportunity to knock the likes of Federer off his perch?

Todd Martin, who Djokovic hired as one of his coaches right before the U.S. Open, was there in Djokovic's box. "It felt like, in the grand scheme of the match, Roger was ready and willing to take advantage of opportunities. Novak struggled a little bit at being at peace with himself and seizing the moment when it comes. Against the top five guys, those moments are going to be few and far between. If you're not alert to make the most happen for yourself, it won't happen."

Although Martin won't give away any company secrets, lest the information find its way into enemy hands, he intends to sharpen Djokovic's strokes, strategies and mind game. For one, Martin would like to see his charge hit more forehands from the middle of the court. "His forehand is more temperamental than his backhand," Martin says. "His backhand is like the morning news -- it always shows up. His forehand has the potential to be a great weapon. ... I'd like to see him make more of the opportunity of hitting forehands from the middle of the court."

Martin also emphasizes the importance of keeping a steady focus no matter the score. You see it in the most successful champions, he says, the ability to build momentum after a good point and, more importantly, to forget a poorly played one as soon as it's over.

Of course, it's not as if the Serb's game needs a complete overhaul. He's like a sports car -- high performance and highly temperamental. Getting a tuneup might be all Djokovic needs to get him back into the spotlight for the best reason of all, his tennis.