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BILL DWYRE

Novak Djokovic having an 'amazing' tennis season

The Serbian star and current No. 2 player has a 39-match winning streak dating to last year and has defeated world No. 1 Rafael Nadal in four tournament finals this year.

May 16, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • Second-ranked Novak Djokovic holds the winner's trophy after defeating Rafael Nadal for the Italian Open title on Sunday in Rome.
Second-ranked Novak Djokovic holds the winner's trophy after defeating… (Andreas Solaro / AFP / Getty…)

The French Open begins this weekend, and the toast of tennis is not Rafael Nadal.

The man who has owned the red clay at Roland Garros in Paris since he first stepped on it in 2005 is now owned by somebody else.

Astonishingly, the favorite to win the men's singles title, second of the four majors of the year, is a Serb with a rock jaw, sharply angled face and a backhand and forehand that have hit every line from every angle for the last six months.

Novak Djokovic has arrived. Tennis has a comet, and he is it.

In his seven years on the ATP Tour, he has been very, very good — No. 3 since 2007 and No. 2 since he won in March at Indian Wells. But all that time, the men's tour has been mostly a discussion about the fading No. 1, Roger Federer, and the hard-charging new top dog, Nadal.

For the last several years, men's tennis has crossed its fingers and said its prayers at every tour stop that the final would match Federer and Nadal. The sport yearned for that like horse racing yearns for another Triple Crown winner. Djokovic, and to a lesser degree Andy Murray of Scotland, were pretty much around to fill the other semifinal brackets.

Not anymore.

What Djokovic is doing this tennis season, in a sport where No. 100 is good enough to give No. 1 a dangerous match, is amazing. And it is so much more than the 39-match winning streak, beginning with his last two in the Davis Cup in December and the next 37 this year. It is how he is doing it, and to whom.

When he beat Nadal in the final of the Madrid tournament May 8, he broke an 0-9 drought on clay against the world's No. 1 player. Nadal had lost one match there in the last three years.

But when he did it again Sunday, a week later, it had jaws dropping all over the sport. Nadal had lost only one match in six years in the Italian Open in Rome. Much as he did at Roland Garros and Monte Carlo, Nadal owned Rome. In addition, Nadal had played his semifinal earlier on Saturday and cruised through in two sets. Djokovic had slugged it out for nearly three hours before beating Murray in a three-set match described by many writers and broadcasters there as "epic."

Djokovic should have been too tired to prevail against a fresher Nadal, a player called by Neil Harman of the London Times "the paragon of clay."

Djokovic won, 6-4, 6-4. Nadal said, "He is simply doing amazing things."

That victory marked Djokovic's fourth straight this year against an almost always unbeatable and irrepressible Nadal. That started with the Indian Wells final and went on to the Miami final in early April, before Madrid and Rome. Had you taken $100 to Las Vegas and wagered that that would happen, you'd be a rich person now. The odds on that were inconceivable.

Until recently, the image many U.S. tennis fans had of Djokovic was of his late-night show a few years ago at the U.S. Open. One of the TV announcers asked if he would do some of the imitations he does of other players. He hesitatingly agreed, then had the place in an uproar with his spoof of Maria Sharapova (her little meeting with herself, her back to the court, before every service point, and her quick brush back of her hair) and Nadal (his sprints onto the court and his tugs on his underpants).

That did little to discourage his nickname: "The Djoker."

But this year has been all serious business for the baseline banger from Belgrade. Previously, he had run out of gas, even defaulted out of major tournaments because of various illnesses and aches and pains. No less than Federer criticized him for that.

Now, he works with two trainers who worked with former No. 1 player Thomas Muster. In the early to mid- 1990s, Muster won most of his 44 tournament titles on clay and took the French in 1995. Muster had a sculpted physique and fight-till-you-die attitude in every match. Djokovic is getting there in both categories.

He will probably take over the No. 1 spot from Nadal in the months ahead, especially because the ATP ranking system puts a premium on defending points won the previous year. Nadal won the French, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year, and anything less than a repeat of that opens the door for Djokovic.

Djokovic has always come across as a player with unfinished business. Others would be happy with No. 2 or 3 in the world. Others would be overjoyed with the more than $5 million he has already won this year, and it's only May. But Djokovic is still peering off into the distance.

"I am going to enjoy this victory," he told the media after his victory Sunday, "but then I need to get ready for Roland Garros."

Sunday, the beginning of the French Open, is Djokovic's 24th birthday. He is seven wins shy of the record streak of 46 by Guillermo Vilas in 1977. Seven is exactly the number of wins needed for a French Open title. Sports fans love streaks and numbers, and even if they aren't tennis fans, this one should get their attention, especially if Djokovic is in the final and Nadal is across the net.

What a difference a few months has made in tennis.

Roger who?

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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