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LaRosa's Sweet Spot: April 22, 2009

4/22/2009 2:06:00 PM

LaRosa's Sweet Spot Main Page

April 22, 2009

As Andy Murray was chipping his way deeper and deeper into the top ten, he was easily the most polarizing player in tennis. Did he have what it took to really challenge the big boys? And did we want him to? What a mouth that punk has on him. Then a funny thing happened. The Scot came back from two sets down against Richard Gasquet at Wimbledon, took out Rafael Nadal over two days in New York and proved to be mentally tougher than Roger Federer in Shanghai (!). Murray became The Man.

Not so funny, the last ATP centerfold with the staple in his navel, Novak Djokovic, became expendable.

Remember Novak? He was the last polarizing punk who dared to challenge the beloved Roger and Rafa (they were in that order when Novak mattered). He started off a big talent with a bigger mouth, a loose cannon from some place called Serbia who, once he chilled out, really started owning his game. He became the clown prince of tennis. Youtube "Djokovic" and "I Will Survive" and see what you come up with. And those impressions! He thrilled the '07 US Open crowd transforming into Rafa and Maria Sharapova. Maria rewarded him by sitting in his box in the final, and joining him afterwards for a little early-morning karaoke.

Novak won the '08 Australian Open and things got serious. He said good-bye to the impressions and got down to business. At first the rewards were spectacular. He won Indian Wells and Rome. Then a funny thing happened. He had a couple of bites at the apple to overtake Nadal at #2 but was denied. And suddenly #3 wasn't even safe with that pesky Scot gaining speed. 

With no fun to release the tension, that's all Novak was carrying around. Defending points never looked so workmanlike and humorless. Desperate and surly was the new black, culminating in the Serb famously turning his fawning US Open crowd against him with his post-Roddick drubbing sour grapes on-court comments. 

Fans abandoned ship. Novak would go on to play respectably, but he'd reached his ceiling. He did manage to win the Masters Cup, but it was thanks in large part to Nadal being in another country and Federer and Murray exhaustingly clubbing each other to death in round robin. When Djokovic caved defending his Melbourne title, retiring in the heat to Andy Roddick (and caving in to Karma), the writing was on the wall. And it read "stick a fork in me."

Novak is no longer acting like a kid .

Then a funny thing happened. Novak grew up. No longer acting like a kid acting like an adult, Novak saw the gaping mouth with the sharp teeth threatening to swallow him whole and he stood his ground. Sure, he benefited from yet another depleted field in Dubai and caved again in front of the perfect storm of Andy Roddick, a still-smarting US crowd, the heat and a title defense at Indian Wells. But Miami reminded him how to play point by point and produce the kind of tennis that got him to #3 in the first place. He yanked the Tsonga monkey off his back and snaked a win over (a contributing) Fed in the semis. On to clay and Nole gutted out back-to-back-to-back three-set wins, eventually falling under the Nadal train as all players must on clay. But he did manage to take the first set Rafa's lost in Monte Carlo since '06.

Much has been made over the top four, the game of musical chairs the rankings have provided, and what they could provide in the coming months. With all the points Djokovic has to defend, it's a definite Murray will leapfrog him and quite possibly even supplant Roger as the new #2 by the French. But Novak has done something no one else in the top four has done: faced adversity and turned it around. Roger's famously struggling to do just that, and Andy and Rafa are on pure upswings. But they too, sooner or later, are going to have to face some music. Novak has. And like Gloria Gaynor, he survived.

So this week, all credit to Novak. His days of impressions may be over, but so is the humorless time card punching. He's come through the fire. Does he have what it takes to really challenge the big boys? It's too soon to tell. But funnier things have happened.