MIAMI -- It isn't always easy being Novak Djokovic. He's not only the top-ranked, 11-time Grand Slam singles champ, he's also the smasher of idols, as the King of Clay can attest. He's the destroyer of illusions, as any fan of the one-handed backhand can testify. He dominates, and thus he's more feared than loved.
Djokovic has never won the hearts of the crowd. How could he after being the bearer of bad news for all those fans of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer? Then his dilemma changed dramatically. He's now so dominant that he brings out the impulse to root for the underdog in even the most jaded fan.
Djokovic felt the full force of that phenomena in his quarterfinal match at the Miami Open on Tuesday afternoon with No. 14 seed Dominic Thiem. The Miami fans were behind the explosive and flashy 22-year-old Austrian hotshot, but Djokovic took his two-fisted wrecking ball to that appealing one-handed backhand. He dispatched the gifted challenger, 6-3, 6-4.
Djokovic's facility for fending off break points (Thiem converted only one of 15) was a key factor, but so was his expert exploitation of Thiem's backhand. Basically, Djokovic took a page out of the playbook Nadal created when he solved the riddle of Federer. Djokovic worked the backhand with high-kicking serves. Just when Thiem seemed to ready to adjust, Djokovic changed tack and caught Thiem off guard with hard fast ones to the forehand.
The telling stat: Djokovic won only 60 percent of his first serves, but 53 percent of his second-serve points. (Thiem won only 29 percent of his own second-delivery points.)
Some think Djokovic is all flying elbows, punishing forehands and choking grunts, but he has transformed the act of serving from a menace to an art.
"I can't serve like [John] Isner or [Milos] Raonic, I don't have that much power," Djokovic said afterward. "I go for accuracy; I go for precision. I pick my spots, and in the long run or down the stretch, that's what matters the most. That's where you can get free points or easier second shots. The serve is one of the shots that I've worked on the most in the past few years."
The improvements in his serve have been as subtle as they have been profound, and they're a testament to the influence of "supercoach" Boris Becker. Djokovic struck up a relationship with Becker, who was known for his blazing serve, late in 2013. They seemed an odd couple, given Becker's portfolio as a super-aggressive player who was at his best charging the net behind monstrous flat or kick serves.
Djokovic was an aggressive baseliner, his serve efficient but neither glaringly in need of work nor was it conspicuously laden with great potential. It was solid -- a nice piece of ash from which the men carved a splendid bat. Becker isn't in Miami this week, but his influence is felt more than ever. The men appear to have grown very close over the course of the past 2½ years.
The same can't always be said for Djokovic and the vast army of global tennis fans. Players from central and eastern Europe often take longer to win recognition in the Anglo-dominated world, but for Djokovic, the problem was compounded by his role in tennis history.
Djokovic was a third wheel who came along and spoiled what had become a very cozy rivalry between Nadal and perhaps the most universally admired tennis player ever, Federer. Then Andy Murray emerged in the UK to siphon off even more potential Djokovic fans. The extent to which Djokovic asserted himself in tennis' Big Four starting in 2013 left him precious little time to win sympathy. He made the jump from dangerous newcomer to scourge of the icons to dominant No. 1 with few stops to appeal for sympathy.
Djokovic has been gracious in accepting his fate, particularly when it comes to acceding to the adulation still reserved for Federer. He understands that Thiem is one of the electric young stars who is expected to carry the game forward when the Serb and his cohorts at the top begin to slow down. But at times, he wishes he enjoyed more support from the crowd, if for no reason other than the energy it gives a player.
"Of course you would like to have majority of crowd supporting you," Djokovic said. "That de-stresses you and gives you strength and motivation. But at the end of the day, whatever the situation is, I gotta do my job. I need to focus on that moment and execute the game plan. But to be honest, it's better when you have the crowd on your side."
For now, though, Djokovic is content to bear his burden. He knows that crowds love underdogs. Aging champions. Guys fighting for one more title. He isn't ready to be any of those guys yet.