Commentary

Anonymous Novak? Must be Djoking

If you hadn't noticed, reigning U.S. Open champion is charging through the field

Updated: September 5, 2012, 12:52 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Even if plenty of people have been hard at work polishing their "Dear Andy" goodbye sonnets into tiptop shape for the moment when popular American star Andy Roddick's career ends at this U.S. Open sometime this week in a monsoon of tears and wisecracks, it's hard to explain how defending champion Novak Djokovic has managed to stay on an under-the-radar tear through the tournament with nine days now gone.

Anyone who says there haven't been any upsets here just hasn't been looking closely enough.

Djokovic's status as a near afterthought nearly halfway into the tournament's second week is even more amazing when you consider Djokovic is still the No. 2 player in the world, Rafael Nadal isn't here to siphon off his usual share of attention and -- most interesting of all -- just the other day, the great Roger Federer himself volunteered that when he stepped up at 5-3 to serve out his otherwise-unremarkable straight-set trouncing of Fernando Verdasco, he had a flashback to the mind-blowing crosscourt service return Djokovic used to save a match point against him in last year's U.S. Open semifinal.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesOnly the rain has slowed Novak Djokovic at this U.S. Open.

(You probably remember what happened next: Djokovic shoved Federer into an emotional tailspin. He went from squandering a second match point to seize a spot in the final to losing the last four games and the match to Djokovic-- all with a suddenness that was astounding. And Djokovic went on to take his first U.S. Open title.)

So if the normally unshakeable Federer is still haunted by the ghost of Djokovic -- "It was funny that I thought about it in a third-round match," Federer said Monday, "but I'm happy that I survived it and played a really good last game" -- shouldn't the rest of us be paying a lot more attention to Djokovic's chances right about now?

Especially after the way Djokovic trounced his first three opponents before Tuesday's daylong rains postponed his fourth-round match against Stanislas Wawrinka to at least Wednesday, with Djokovic up 2-0 in the first set?

"I wanted to start very sharp from the first point [of the tournament] and I've done that," Djokovic has said. "I feel great on the court. ... This is the last major of the year; it's played on my favorite surface, the [one] that suits me best. ... I feel physically stronger and more prepared than I did last year.

"I've been aiming for this."

Djokovic has seemed intent on delivering some of those shiver-your-timbers warnings that great athletes utter when they're feeling especially good.

Too bad hardly anybody has noticed.

When asked Monday whether he felt "strangely under the radar" so far, Djokovic shrugged and said, "I really try not to pay attention. ... The attention comes and goes."

In many ways, Djokovic and Federer have switched places this year. Federer's ability to win his eighth Wimbledon title in July and claw his way back to the No. 1 ranking Djokovic (like Nadal before him) had pried away from Federer has made Federer's resurgence the story of 2012 almost as much as Djokovic was the story of 2011.

At 31, Federer wasn't supposed to have this kind of last gasp in him. And Djokovic, who always has been able to solve Nadal as reliably as Federer cannot, was supposed to saunter into 2012 and continue taking over Federer's role as Nadal's greatest protagonist.

That baton supposedly was passed when Djokovic won three of the four Grand Slams in '11 -- losing only to Federer at the French Open, but then beating him at Wimbledon and then again in that U.S. Open comeback for the ages for his first title here. Djokovic had a won-lost record of 66-2 at one point, and even though he wore down and went into a late-winter funk in which he didn't win another title, it seemed almost understandable given the impossible standard he'd set during his six-month winning streak.

Besides, all looked well again when Djokovic began 2012 by repeating at the Australian Open. And he's had a very good year since then, just not another historic one.

Some of Djokovic's dip has been blamed on the death in April of his grandfather, who was close to him. Djokovic also was very public about saying his goals for 2012 were to win the French Open and the Olympic gold medal, the last two big titles he's never won, and when he accomplished neither, it only confirmed the feeling that Federer had gone slingshotting by him.

The Swiss star now has beaten Djokovic twice in the past month -- first at Wimbledon and then again in the final in Cincinnati.

But Djokovic has a way of conjuring up magic on these New York courts like nowhere else. He knows it. And he knows Federer knows it.

Djokovic saved two match points to beat Federer here in the 2010 Open semis, too. He claimed to have smacked one of them with his eyes shut.

So don't sleep on Djokovic the rest of the way, especially if he and Federer meet here in their first final, for a change. Djokovic is back to cracking off winners and slashing back service returns. He's again covering the court from sideline to sideline and baseline to net, but now he's also tinkering with a little more of a serve-and-volley game in the hopes of shortening points, maybe conserving a little energy. And so far so good.

Djokovic has played the minimum nine sets in his three wins and surrendered three games in a set only once. He knows he can still beat out Federer for player of the year if he repeats as Open champion and finishes the year with two Slam titles to Federer's one. He was so impressive in his third-round win against 31st-seeded Julien Benneteau of France on Sunday, Benneteau came away grumbling to reporters about how Djokovic couldn't miss.

When the complaint was relayed to Djokovic, he smiled as if he was pleased. And why not?

After nine drama-bereft days, the U.S. Open had its first bona-fide upset.

Someone finally noticed Novak Djokovic after all.

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