Tennis

Djokovic finally coming into his own

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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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He is basically the same player, offering the same solid, hard-hitting, all-around game with no glaring weaknesses. But Novak Djokovic is not the same person.

A year ago, he was the No. 3 player in the world with big question marks hanging over his ability to make that next, huge step to the top. Now? There is no one, certainly not Rafael Nadal, who does not believe that Djokovic is the best tennis player on the planet.

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  • Who will win the French Open?
    • Rafael Nadal
    • Novak Djokovic
    • Roger Federer
    • Andy Murray
    • Someone else

Djokovic is less than 500 ATP points from actually becoming No. 1. His incredible streak includes 39 straight matches unbeaten and seven tournament titles — including a Grand Slam at the Australian Open and four of the next toughest tournaments to win at Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome.

And so what happened? There is one achievement not mentioned above, and it probably offers the clue to what has transformed this soon-to-be 24-year-old Serb.

He won the Davis Cup.

Not quite alone, but he was the leader of that squad of talented players who have made tennis easily the most popular sport in Serbia over the past couple of years. For a fledgling nation to win one of sport's oldest and most revered trophies, as they did in December by beating France in Belgrade, was an achievement that engulfed a nation in happiness and literally had people dancing in the streets.

For all the contributions of Viktor Troicki and Janko Tipsarevic, it would not have happened without the man they call 'Nole.' He was the inspiration, not just with his play but also the leadership he brought to the team with his multi-faceted personality. For Djokovic is the cold-eyed warrior as well as the comedian who likes to make people laugh. It is fair to call him a 'Djoker,' but cross him at your peril.

And that was the start — that triumph in Belgrade. It was what sparked the belief.

"This is the best moment of my career and probably of my nation," Djokovic said afterward. "This is like winning the World Cup for us."

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Inspired to work even harder under long-time coach Marian Vajda, Djokovic took that newfound belief to Australia and triumphed again. It was the second time he had won in Melbourne, but he was a different man now. Older, wiser, more assured — and less concerned about the apparent physical frailty, brought on through breathing problems, that had seen him wilt in the sun too often in big matches. A gluten-free diet may have helped, but if he seemed stronger physically, it was deep inside his psyche where the real improvement lay.

"Now he does not seem scared to conquer his own demons and find out just how good he can really be," says Craig Cardon, the American coach who worked with Martina Navratilova for many years and is well versed in the insecurities that linger in performers trying to emerge from Eastern European countries that have seen great political change in recent years.

Very few players from that part of the world have shot to the top as teenage phenomenons. Not Jaroslav Drobny, the Czech who finally won Wimbledon at 32; not Ivan Lendl, who lost in four Grand Slam finals before winning one; not Goran Ivanisevic, the Croat who was 29 by the time he won Wimbledon; not even Navratilova, who needed years in the States before she became No. 1.

Perhaps only Monica Seles provides an exception, but she was in Florida as a young girl with Nick Bollettieri giving her daily doses of positive thinking. Bollettieri doesn't do insecurity.

So take a naturally gifted athlete, allow him to mature physically, eradicate some health problems with the right diet and feed it all into that part of the subconscious that balances fears and insecurities with ambition and self-confidence. If enough good things happen, there will be a tipping point toward the positive. That's what appears to have happened with Djokovic.

"He has found his way," says Bob Brett, considered one of the world's top coaches who has guided Boris Becker, Ivanisevic and now Marin Cilic. "Winning gives any player a huge boost in confidence. Now he has been able to lift his game and hold his position on the court. It means he is not being pushed back and can create insecurities in his opponents. Now they feel they have to go for the big shot before he does. He is putting them under that psychological pressure because he is so solid, so apparently in command."

Only Andy Murray, who has many of the same skills, has been able to maneuver his way into a winning position during the Serb's amazing unbeaten run. Murray served for the match against him in the Rome semifinal and came within two points of victory four times. But two double faults showed just how much pressure Djokovic had been exerting on the Scot throughout a high-quality battle that kept the sellout crowd at the Foro Italico enthralled for three hours.

Murray was a little non-plussed afterward: "Normally I am good at closing out matches against the big players," he said.

But not this time. Not against this man who never lets you breathe.

Djokovic now will head for Paris and go through more carefully planned preparation for the French Open. The tennis world will be hoping that he can keep a rendezvous in the final with Nadal that is becoming a habit. A fifth consecutive win against Rafa, and the third on clay? Fantasists dream of such things, but Djokovic has found a way of turning dreams into reality.

His run will end one day, but someone is going to have to play incredibly well to make it happen.

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