Friday, November 14, 2008
Lost in the spotlight fine with Djokovic
By Sandra Harwitt Special to ESPN.com
Despite an Australian Open championship, Novak Djokovic hasn't won a title since May.
SHANGHAI, China -- It's not all that unusual to find an acclaimed player has become the forgotten man at a tournament.
At this year's season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai, that man is world No. 3 Novak Djokovic. The Serbian, who answers to the title of reigning Australian Open champion, is the most ignored guy from the top four this week.
Rafael Nadal, who is benched with knee tendinitis, was making headlines as the absent world No. 1. Roger Federer was front and center as the guy looking for a fifth Tennis Masters Cup title in six years (though his dramatic loss to Andy Murray on Friday quashed that opportunity). And Andy Murray, the first Briton to score a top-four ranking in the 36-year history of the system, is busy certifying himself as a bona fide marquee name.
And then there's Djokovic, who quietly stepped into the semifinal where he'll play Frenchman Gilles Simon, the benefactor of Nadal's withdrawal.
Djokovic was a solid headliner in his breakout 2007 season, so much so that some called him Mr. Entertainment. But he's flying under the radar here in China, and as far as he's concerned, that's OK. Djokovic actually hinted that he's quite content not hamming it up as he did last year when his camp impersonations made him a YouTube sensation, even if it wasn't always popular with some colleagues.
"You know, sometimes it's better not to have too much attention because it kind of releases the pressure, which you usually have as a big favorite, so you can play, maybe, a little bit more relaxed," Djokovic said. "It's quite important when you're relaxed on the court and you can really perform your best tennis."
This season has unveiled a more serious side to the Serbian. And there are quite a few around the game who wouldn't be coy about saying he's become downright snooty.
There's also been a public relations misstep or two along the way as well, most notably trash-talking words between Djokovic and Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open. All was forgiven between the two almost immediately after the incident occurred, but it still earned the Serb the disfavor of the U.S. Open crowd that only a year before roared with laughter as he imitated Nadal and Maria Sharapova.
Fortunately, in Shanghai this week, Djokovic has shelved the pugnacious persona, reverting to his lighter side, and he has adopted a spirit of cooperation.
Nikolay Davydenko, for one, did not find the change in Djokovic from playful rookie to intensely charged athlete surprising.
"You think he's this year more nervous?" said Davydenko, offering an impish smile along with his phrase turning English. "You know, some young players, like 22, 21, [when they're just in their first year coming to the tour,] it's a very good result. For the next year, he knows he's already a very good player, and he needs to defend points. You start to be serious. ... If you start to lose some points to guys who are No. 20, No. 30, you start to be nervous."
Djokovic started the season on the ultimate high by winning his first Grand Slam trophy at the Australian Open, an achievement heightened by a semifinal victory over then world No. 1 Roger Federer. He also reeled in titles at Indian Wells, with a semifinal win over Rafael Nadal, and Rome. Additionally, his dossier includes three final and six semifinal appearances at various events.
Nevertheless, by his own admission, Djokovic's year started to falter with a second-round upset at the hands of Marat Safin at Wimbledon.
And there is this little fact: If things had gone his way at Hamburg and the French Open this past spring, Djokovic could've overtaken then-world No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the rankings. But he lost to Nadal at Hamburg, the French Open, Queen's Club and the Olympics, beating the Spaniard only in the Cincinnati semifinal during the last half of the year. On top of that, there was a semifinal loss to Federer at the U.S. Open -- and Andy Murray, the guy breathing down his neck at No. 4, beat him in consecutive weeks at Toronto and Cincinnati.
"I haven't done really well for the second part of the year, beginning from early exit from Wimbledon," Djokovic said. "After that I lost a little bit of the confidence. The bottom line is that this is a very mental sport. Everybody is practicing. Everybody is physically fit to survive five-set matches. But the difference between the guys who are at the top and the rest of the guys is this mental ability to cope with the pressures of the moment. A big role of playing is this confidence. I'm confident about the future."
His dissatisfaction, however, seems to be giving way to satisfaction with his first Tennis Masters semifinal as the season is drawing to a close.
After winning his first two round-robin matches this week against Juan Martin Del Potro and Davydenko, respectively, Djokovic had clear sailing into the semifinals, regardless of the outcome of his match with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Although Djokovic soared during their first career encounter in the final of the Australian Open in January, he has now lost to Tsonga the other three times they've played.
But, in the big picture, the defeat in the final match of the Tennis Masters Cup round-robin segment didn't even bring a grimace to the face of Djokovic.
"I feel happy because I am through to the semifinal, which was [my] main goal," Djokovic said. "I achieved everything I wanted this tournament. Well, not [everything.] I think I have enough quality to go further."
That's a far different feeling than he had here last year when nerves and fatigue aided in a desultory 0-3 round-robin result.
Settling into his role as a top player, Djokovic is clearly feeling more comfortable negotiating the arising scenarios that come along with stardom -- even if he is the one getting lost in the shuffle.
I feel more mature," said Djokovic, chatting amenably the day before the Tennis Masters Cup kickoff.
"This tournament is the crowning achievement for each player who is here. You are one of the eight best players this year, and it's a big success just being part of this great event. And you try to be the best as possible. I'm trying to develop my game and put 100 percent on the tennis court every match I play, and the results will come. I always want to win because I have the highest ambitions."
Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.