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Friday, April 20, 2012
Novak Djokovic fights through grief

Pundits will never make a place for this match on the list of all the great ones Novak Djokovic has played. It won't make the short list of best comebacks that invariably will be complied by statisticians and tennis historians. It won't even make the long list of close calls.

But Djokovic has earned the right to put his third-round win over Alexandr Dolgopolov in the Monte Carlo Masters right up there among his best efforts, and it undoubtedly will take a place among his most memorable -- as well as most painful -- moments in tennis.

That's because Djokovic had learned just a few hours before playing that he'd lost his beloved 83-year-old grandfather, Vladimir. Distracted and loaded up with grief, Djokovic made a hash of the first set but then pulled himself together to ultimately prevail in three sets over the mercurial Dolgopolov.

Djokovic was able to pull that off partly because, although Vladimir had left him, some of the things he taught his grandson, the No. 1 player in the world, had not. As Djokovic has said, "He always told me to fight." The boy learned well. And Thursday, he fought, battling a volatile, talented opponent as well as his own distracting melancholia.

Those words of Vladimir's will resonate in the coming days and weeks as Nole tries to balance his feelings, desires, obligations and abilities in what looms as the most challenging segment of the tennis year -- the part traditionally owned by his great rival, No. 2 Rafael Nadal.

Djokovic displaced Nadal as the master of the red-clay universe in 2011, but he has yet to prove that he wasn't just on an extended vacation in what players like to think of as "the zone." In all fairness, it wasn't as though all Djokovic had to do was swipe at the ball to hit a winner. But his degree of focus, his timing, his stamina and his serene, confident attitude all confirmed that he was in the midst of something rare.

The events of this year, compared to 2011, bear that out. Djokovic is having a great year. He's already won a Grand Slam and a Masters title, and he's lost just two matches, both semifinals. Playing within himself, overcoming the occasional lapse, he's an outstanding 21-2. But it's not 2011, and everyone, including Djokovic, knows it.

It won't be very long, given the demands and nature of clay-court tennis, that Djokovic will have to call upon Vladimir's rallying cry to fight. And it may take more effort to answer it the way he did through that gilded 2011 for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that he knows as well as anyone else that until someone proves otherwise, it's impossible to sustain the degree of perfection he attained in the first half of 2011.

Some portion of this fight will have to be settled within his own heart. For starters, does he pull out of Monte Carlo and return to Serbia to attend the funeral of his grandfather, should that event take place before Sunday, or does he stay and fight it out? Which would do Vladimir prouder?

Djokovic entered the court at the Monte Carlo Country Club with his head hanging Thursday and appeared to wipe away a tear as he prepared to launch his first serve. He seemed a million miles away as he sleepwalked through an error-strewn first set. You have to wonder, how long will his mourning period last, and how will it impact his performance?

We had a pretty good inkling of just how shaken Djokovic is when he politely but firmly declined to take part in the obligatory postmatch news conference. The ATP issued a statement, cryptically declaring: "After he won, he just felt totally exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally."

Djokovic clearly needs and deserves his space. But this is a time of year when, for a top tennis player, space is largely unavailable outside the confines of the court and stadium. Nole has known for a long time that life at the top isn't easy, but I think he's about to discover that it can be difficult in unexpected and conflict-ridden ways.