A tennis player who cracks the top 10 is akin to a lawyer making partner, a scholar earning tenure, a Fortune 500 executive being named vice president. It's a significant rite of passage.
This is why the ascent of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray is one of the most exciting stories of 2007.
These two good friends each turn 20 in May. As of this week, Djokovic is ranked No. 7, while Murray is 11th and will likely enter the top 10 within a month. They met in the semifinals of consecutive Masters Series events, the Pacific Life Open and the Sony Ericsson Open. Though Djokovic's convincing wins on both occasions give him an edge over Murray, each has the goods to seriously contend for Grand Slam titles this year.
As a child in war-torn Serbia, Djokovic played every day during the 1999 NATO bombing of his homeland. Raised in tumult, his manner mixes passion and poise. "It's normal for me to smash my racket," Djokovic confessed with a smile following his victory over Guillermo Canas on Sunday in Key Biscayne, Fla.
But there's another aspect to Djokovic, too. His father, a former professional skier, had also wanted his boy to hit the slopes. Young Novak preferred tennis. Still, his exposure to skiing is apparent on the court. Djokovic has superb balance, resulting in a keen ability to strike the ball and rapidly get himself in place to strike the next shot from a strong, centered position.
According to ESPN analyst Cliff Drysdale, "He's able to penetrate with his strokes in a very forceful way." There is an uncluttered craftsmanship to Djokovic's game, ranging from the power he generates with his ground strokes to his fluid service motion and increasing comfort at the net. The latter has been aided by Djokovic recently adding Australian legend Mark Woodforde to his camp.
Murray is also exceptionally adept at absorbing tennis lessons. His mother, Judy, a Scottish coach, taught him to play. But rather than merely learn how to hit the ball, young Andy did something one rarely hears players admit to doing: He studied players, devoting hours to figuring out which shots they didn't like to hit and, in turn, which shots he'd need to master in order to accomplish the goal of getting them off balance.
In a sport where too many players devote time strictly to their own strokes, Murray became adept at understanding tennis' inherent interactive aspect.
Brad Gilbert joined the Murray camp as his coach after last year's Wimbledon event; however, Gilbert, a former top-10 player himself, saw something in the teenager well before becoming his coach.
"He's got some of that ability to see the court and the ball the way Miloslav Mecir did," Gilbert said at Wimbledon in 2005. "It's pretty special."
Mecir, a top-10 player during the 1980s, was somewhat of a favorite of the tennis cognoscente, a player who anticipated so well that he never seemed rushed. The result is a game that's a connoisseur's delight, incorporating the ability to vary spins, paces, defense and offense.
"It's an interesting thing Andy's got," British Davis Cup captain John Lloyd said. "It seems sometimes like his ball is easy to attack, but it's actually somewhat awkward, so you start to feel off balance against him, never quite at ease. And recently he's been working more on taking offense once he gets a guy on the ropes."
In large part, it's that tactical component that makes these two alluring. In Key Biscayne, for example, Djokovic executed different game plans in each of his last three matches:
" Against Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals, he attacked wisely, knowing that his flat, deep drives would pin the Spaniard.
" In the semis versus Murray, he sensed something amiss in his friend's movement and repeatedly struck drop shots.
" In the final versus Canas, the roadrunner who'd beaten Roger Federer two straight times, Djokovic patiently aimed a lot of balls down the middle, blunting Canas' movement -- and then taking the offensive when he had his opening.
Djokovic has worked extensively on his concentration and kept his temper in check. Murray's focus since he joined forces with Gilbert has been strength and fitness. In both of his losses to Djokovic, he was exceptionally weary.
Coming into the clay-court season and the buildup to Wimbledon, each seeks to build on the gains he's already made in 2007. Each can excel on all surfaces. Each has exhibited a desire to be something more than a middle manager, but a star.
And now each enters a stage of possibility and peril. A player who never gets higher than, say, No. 15 in the world might merely be satisfied to have maximized his skills and made a career for himself. But one who attains a single-digit ranking knows the biggest possible rewards could well be within grasp. With the stakes that much higher, the emotional pain and physical struggle can be so great that it can leave a player exceedingly frustrated.
The window remains open only for so long, a ticking clock that's nearing midnight for such familiar top-10 players as Tommy Haas, David Nalbandian and Ivan Ljubicic. But for Djokovic and Murray, the day has just dawned.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes about tennis for Tennis Magazine and The Tennis Channel.