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Monday, June 16, 2008
The Djokovic dynamic

Being the third wheel is usually an uncomfortable role; it can be downright humiliating (think: dating). But it suits Novak Djokovic just fine -- and it's great for the game of tennis.

Since the Spring Masters events of last year, Djokovic has merrily been screwing things up for Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the rivals who had previously enjoyed a special intimacy and divvied up the tennis kingdom for their own gain and glory. Djokovic's emergence has complicated things and I can't help but think back on the constructive mayhem the third wheel in pro tennis has often caused.

Remember when Tracy Austin popped on the scene, to shock the game out of the bipolar grip of Chris Evert and Martina Navaratilova? How about the emergence of dour iron man Ivan Lendl, to make the peevish, petulant duo of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe forget their mutual antagonism?

Take Djokovic out of the picture and the recently completed warm-up week for Wimbledon looks dull as dishwater. Roger Federer beats a string of flawed talents and outright journeymen to take Halle (yawn) and Nadal, after beating Andy Roddick, probably ends his week in Queens by waxing some surprise finalist two and one.

Instead, Queens -- thanks to Djokovic -- produced one of the best finals we've seen in recent years (at least in terms of shotmaking), and made fans worldwide realize that there's a lot more to these "tune-up" events than treading water and picking up a nice paycheck. The result also can be read as a shot across the bow of the celebrated rivals. Not so fast boys, Djokovic seemed to say, I'm here, I'm playing the best fast-court tennis of anyone so far this year, and don't either of you go thinking you'll just breeze to a rematch at Wimbledon.

In fact by far the most intriguing question as Wimbledon looms, less than a week from now, is where Djokovic winds up in the draw. As you may know, after the top two seeds are put at the top and bottom of the draw, their projected semifinal opponents (the nos. 3 and 4 seeds) are drawn from a hat. Thus, Nadal got Djokovic in Paris through sheer (bad) luck of the draw. He survived handily, but he survives everything and everyone at Roland Garros easily. Getting by the third wheel on grass isn't apt to be so easy -- certainly not judging from the grass-court game Djokovic rolled out last week.

If Federer draws Djokovic, it puts that much more pressure on him at this increasingly critical-seeming Wimbledon. At Halle, Federer won his second title of the year (Estoril was the other), and neither of those wins compares to the titles bagged thus far by Nadal and Djokovic. The tennis year is almost half over and Nadal and Djokovic are the ones setting the pace.

This has to make Federer a little nervous because in tennis, once the third wheel really gets rolling, you never know what's going to happen. Just ask McEnroe or Connors, who both ended up with losing records against Lendl.