Commentary

Why Djokovic better buckle down

Updated: March 31, 2012, 4:07 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- A few hours before his Friday semifinal match, with only a few dozen witnesses, Novak Djokovic was out on the stadium court in full-blown goofball mode -- a side he displays in public less often these days.

At one point, he turned his racket around and directed hitting partner Dusan Vemic to throw him a few fastballs. Gripping the racket head with both hands and using the handle as a bat, Djokovic cracked two offerings into the stands -- no easy task. When the second cleared the green fence, he yelled, "Home run!" and then trotted in cartoon fashion around the court, touching all the bases.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Al Bello/Getty ImagesWho knew Novak Djokovic would be in for such a struggle after a first-set bagel against Juan Monaco?

Last year, the 24-year-old Serb was unconscious, winning three Grand Slam singles titles (the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) and 70 of 76 matches. The most pressing question in all of tennis: Can he win the French Open this June and touch all the bases for a personal, consecutive Grand Slam? (He also won the 2012 Australian Open.)

The beginning of that answer -- the onset of the clay-court season -- will have to wait for one more match. That's because the No. 1-seeded Djokovic has played his way into the Sony Ericsson Open final Sunday, having beat No. 21 seed Juan Monaco 6-0, 7-6 (5) on Friday.

"I think I did really well coming into the match, started very strong," Djokovic said. "Then I just wasn't able to close it out. I made so many unforced errors, I got him back in the match. Semifinals is never going to be easy.

"In the important moments today, I felt I should have done more. Could have easily been a third set. But it was a straight-sets win. I closed it out when I needed to. OK, I am in the finals. That is a positive fact."

Djokovic's finals opponent, Andy Murray, advanced without playing when Rafael Nadal pulled out with a knee injury.

Although Nadal has had all kinds of problems with Djokovic -- losing seven straight, including those past three major finals -- history suggests Murray has more than a fighting chance. Djokovic holds a tenuous 7-5 edge in career head-to-heads, but Murray has won two of the past three. This year, the two played a brilliant match in the Australian Open semifinals, won by Djokovic in a five-set thriller that went 4 hours, 50 minutes. Murray handled him in Dubai earlier this month, in straight sets, in a relatively swift 83 minutes.

Djokovic, conscious of Murray's competitive advantage in terms of recovery, seemed bent on finishing Friday's match as quickly as possible. He broke the 28-year-old from Argentina in his first three service games (winning 12 of 15 points) and won the first set in 27 minutes.

The second set, believe it or not, went a grinding 96 minutes.

There have been times during this tournament when Djokovic has seemed disinterested. But somehow, he usually managed to reel the games back in. Case in point: Serving at 4-3 in the second, Djokovic dozed off and fell into a love-40 hole. With great effort and a laser concentration, he came back to win the game. He wasn't so lucky the next time; Monaco finally broke Djokovic on his eighth break point opportunity to level it at 5-all.

On serve in the tiebreaker at 3-4, Monaco hit a sloppy, slappy forehand that gave Djokovic the critical cushion. Monaco managed to save one match point, but when his last forehand strayed a tad long, Djokovic was safely in.

For Monaco, it was a triumph to get to the semifinals of an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 for the second time in his career. On the way, he took out Americans Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish. Monaco is now 0-for-5 against Djokovic and has lost 12 of 13 sets.

But did Djokovic spend too much time on the court and compromise his chances against Murray?

"You always want to win in straights sets," Djokovic said. "I wasn't thinking about my opponent in the finals."

At one point, Djokovic turned the argument around.

"I don't think it will affect him that he didn't play today," he said, "but we will see."

They met here in the 2009 finals. Murray won in straight sets.

"Andy is a tough player," Djokovic said. "We all know his talent, his potential and quality. He's very consistent with his results.

"We are good friends and have kind of similar games. It's going to be a good match."

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.