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No Djoke

by Steve Flink

The signs had been unmistakable all year long. He had made it to the final at Indian Wells
Djokovic is having a very good 07'.
before losing to Rafael Nadal. He had come through to take the crown in Miami, toppling Nadal along the way. He had reached the penultimate round at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. But over this past weekend, Novak Djokovic played the finest sustained tennis of his career to bring down the three top ranked players in the game of tennis at one event ( a feat last achieved by Boris Becker in 1994), claiming the Masters Series title in Montreal with commendable victories over Andy Roddick, Nadal, and Roger Federer. Not only did Djokovic take his game to a new competitive level, but he gave the sport an immense boost in the process.

The men's game has been living to a large extent over the last two years off the gripping rivalry between Federer and Nadal. Those two towering competitors have met in the last two French Open and Wimbledon finals, with Nadal ruling at Roland Garros and Federer retaliating at Wimbledon in both 2006 and 2007. Not since Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe collided in the 1980 and 1981 Wimbledon and U.S. Open championship matches had two men battled it out in the finals of consecutive majors two years in a row. Watching Federer-Nadal duels has been a joyous experience.

But only Nadal--- who leads 8-5 in his overall career series with the Swiss-has been able to provide a consistent threat to Federer's supremacy. No one else has made Federer unduly anxious or uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Nadal has stood commandingly as the No. 2 player in the world, a league above everyone else. That is why the triumph of Djokovic in Montreal is such a powerful development for the game. While the race for the No. 1 world ranking in 2007 remains a close call between Nadal and Federer, Djokovic has made such significant progress this year that he has not only reclaimed his authority as the indisputable No. 3 player in the world but also looms as a serious threat to both of the men ranked above him.

After casting aside Roddick in a straight set quarterfinal on the hard courts of Montreal, Djokovic stopped Nadal for only the second time in their six head-to-head confrontations in 2007. In the process of carving out a 7-5, 6-3 victory, the 20-year-old Serbian was unbending on the big points. At 5-5 in the critical opening set, he saved three break points, denying the Spaniard an opportunity to serve for the set and perhaps ride the momentum to a straight set win. Djokovic got out of some more awkward jams in the second set. He managed to fight off all eight break points he faced in the match, and a subdued Nadal never found his customary degree of emotional intensity. Djokovic stifled his adversary time and again when it mattered.

In the final, Djokovic competed with the same remarkable poise and unwavering determination. Somehow, he kept Federer at bay when the world No. 1 served for the first set at 6-5. Federer quickly reached 40-0. He had six set points in that game. But, after seven deuces, Djokovic finally broke serve to reach a tie-break. In that sequence, Djokovic was unerring while an apprehensive Federer could not find his range. Federer swiftly reasserted himself in the second set before Djokovic took control of the match once more in the final set.

Up until he served with a 4-3 lead, Djokovic had not lost a point on his serve. Suddenly, he was attacked by nerves. Federer pounced. It was 4-4, then 5-4 on serve for Federer. Twice, in the tenth and twelfth games, Djokovic had to serve to save the match but he lost a combined total of only one point in those two crucial games. That took gumption. That took composure. That took perspicacity. On they went to another tie-break. Federer won the opening point confidently on serve but collected only one more point thereafter as Djokovic came through with ineffable grace under pressure. The Serbian thoroughly deserved his 7-6 (2), 2-6, 7-6 (2) victory, his first in five career clashes with Federer. He played a superb tactical match, never allowing Federer to settle into a comfort zone from the baseline, breaking down the backhand of his revered opponent comprehensively, making the Swiss inordinately anxious off the forehand.

To be sure, Djokovic will not find it an easy task to win his first major. He has plenty of hard work ahead. But his two Masters Series triumphs this season in Miami and Montreal are certainly a step in the right direction. No one had ever knocked Federer and Nadal out of the same tournament since they have occupied the top two spots in the rankings.

Djokovic is no longer the impetuous and unstable young player he once was. He has the tools now to hold his own with anyone in the world from the back court, a first serve that is among the best in the game, and a growing shot making arsenal that gives him the kind of versatility few players possess. Down the stretch of his win over the world No.1, he twice won points by using the drop shot before moving forward to produce breathtaking lob volleys over a stranded Federer. The first lob volley was an outright winner and the second one forced a discombobulated Federer to attempt an ill fated, between the legs shot that inevitably failed.

Djokovic has now entered the conversation. He is in the forefront of the men's game, rising swiftly toward eminence. Will he win the U.S. Open this year? The odds are slightly against him because Federer and Nadal remain more experienced at the Grand Slam events, and toppling those two formidable champions on a Grand Slam stage in best of five set matches would be a tall order for Djokovic. Nevertheless, the Serbian is no longer afraid of anyone, and his stock is rising fast. If he does not prevail at the Open, it will only be a matter of time before Djokovic secures a major. I have no doubt he will win a Grand Slam event by the end of 2008. Novak Djokovic is in the mix, and the game of tennis is better for it. 

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to the TennisChannel.com

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