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Thursday, January 31, 2008
More than just Aussie crowns


Maria Sharapova and Novak Djokovic spent the last night of the U.S. Open hitting the town and singing karaoke together. Last week at the Australian Open, they were busy winning singles titles in their respective events at Melbourne Park -- and occasionally dueling about Djokovic's Sharapova impression in courtside TV interviews.

Talk of a romance might be dormant for now, but these two lively 20-year-olds still share more than their Australian Open crowns and a taste for singing amateur duets. Here's what they have in common and what they can learn from each other:

Parent management: If they're going to be offensive, don't be defensive

Sometimes it felt like there was more action taking place in the friends' box than on court when these two were playing. If it wasn't Yuri Sharapov making throat-slitting gestures wearing his "assassin hoodie," it was Srdjan Djokovic arguing with the tournament director about the vocal fans seated behind him. After her son won the event, Dijana Djokovic referred to vanquished semifinalist Roger Federer by telling reporters, "The king is dead, long live the king."

Sharapova astutely deflected the queries about her father with humor, making fun of commando-style hooded sweatshirt before anyone else could. "He looks like an assassin. I swear he's a really nice guy. I told him, 'You look like an assassin with that jacket on.' He's like, well, he has a cold so he told me that he had to put the hood on tonight." After her next match: "He is obsessed with that sweater, by the way. He loves that thing." Finally, when the gesture came up after her win over Justine Henin: "What? He put his hood on, yeah. What about the hood? … God, you guys notice so many things -- he loves that sweater."

She's in a more delicate situation with her parents than Djokovic, but does all the talking about them for them -- Mom isn't present during tournaments, and Dad doesn't give interviews. Less fun for the rest of us, but probably more peaceful for her.

Djokovic, meanwhile, lets himself and his parents do their thing and doesn't let the reaction get to him, which is more fun for both him and us. Despite getting some backlash for things he's said and done the past, he's still not afraid to throw the doors open, letting photographers in to capture his locker room celebrations after winning the title and shaking hands with fans during his photo shoot with the trophy the next day.

There's no chance of errant hoodies in Djokovic's box -- the attire was strictly coordinated, with white shirts spelling out his nickname NOLE in big, black letters. The impression that they're all just trying to have a good time helps smooth things over when they step on a few toes along the way. It also helps that his parents aren't his coaches.

Crowd control: Know when to keep going, and when to stop

Neither Sharapova nor Djokovic were the stadium favorite during their final. Sharapova won the crowd over with a long and poignant speech ranging from Billie Jean King to the death of hitting partner Michael Joyce's mother last year to her own mother's birthday that day.

In his postmatch interview after defeating Federer, Djokovic undiplomatically told the crowd they had been like a "second opponent" during the match. He mentioned their support of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga after the final, but disarmed the fans by adding, "I still love you guys, it's OK."

If only he hadn't taken back the mike a couple of minutes later to single out the Serbian fans and mention how proud he was of himself.

Taking care of No. 1: Don't hesitate twice

Sharapova and Djokovic didn't just beat the No. 1s on their way to the Australian Open title, they demolished them. It was all the more impressive because both had lost frustratingly close last matches in their previous encounters with the top-ranked players, and found themselves struggling physically and mentally during parts of 2007.

Sharapova rarely has trouble getting mentally charged for big matches, but physically ran out of energy when facing Henin in a three-hour-plus battle in Madrid. In Melbourne, Sharapova made sure it wasn't so much about being the last player standing as it was about being the first player to land the killer blows. Answering Henin's change-ups halfway through the first set with some variety of her own, she blew the Belgian away 6-0 in the second.

Djokovic held seven set points in the first two sets against Federer in the U.S. Open final and admitted afterward that nerves had hampered him as he tried to capitalize. This time, he surged back from a breakdown to take the first set, and found his best shots after receiving a time warning when serving for the second set and facing set points in the third.