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Wednesday, October 14, 2009
The many different sides of Novak Djokovic

SHANGHAI -- How about the evolution of Novak Djokovic: court jester, petulant child, cerebral and political maestro.

And to think, the Serbian is only 22 years old.

Djokovic initially captivated the world of tennis with his breath-of-fresh-air demeanor and hysterical impressions of fellow players. Although not every player delighted in being mimicked, the prevailing opinion was that Djokovic was funny.

His nickname, "Djoker," is pure serendipity.

Nevertheless, a more serious Djokovic emerged following his 2008 Australian Open victory, and that seriousness turned to frequent churlishness, a result of self-induced pressure for greater success that became an albatross around his neck.

Now, there's a new version of Djokovic.

The Serbian's most recent, not to mention far more palatable incarnation, is as a thinking man's player, a transformation that coincides with his emergence as a tournament owner.

It's the Djokovic extended family's new business: ownership and organization of the Serbian Open, which successfully brought a professional tennis event to the country for the first time in May.

Djokovic did not disappoint the 100,000 fans who flocked to the Belgrade-based event by winning the inaugural edition. But he couldn't help becoming somewhat involved in the operational side, which has helped him develop a new appreciation for the all-inclusive nature of the tennis business.

"The main goal and priority is that every single person who came as a guest at our tournament feels good," said Djokovic, who also serves the tour in a political capacity as a member of the Player Council. "That's what we tried to do, starting from [the] restaurant and the courts, the hotel, transportation. I asked the players; every player who I spoke to was happy."

Djokovic understands that growing a tournament is not easy, especially when it was necessary to build the infrastructure from scratch, which takes time, money and dedication.

But he has big dreams for the future of the Serbian Open, even if the event is not of the caliber of the nine premiere ATP Master 1000 events.

"This is a hard part of the tournament, not having a lot of opportunities to invite the big stars," Djokovic said. "Obviously we're going to need a higher category of tournament, eventually, to attract the bigger players, and of course a bigger budget. I'm trying, with my own friendship with all these guys and trying to influence them a little bit, but their decision is their decision."

Djokovic knows a quality event when he sees one, and the Shanghai Masters 1000 couldn't rate higher in his estimation. In fact, he told new ATP president Adam Helfant, who briefly stopped by the event, to bottle Shanghai as the recipe for the perfect tournament.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Shanghai has deep pockets, which many tournaments do not have.

The top eight seeds and top two doubles teams have their own private living rooms, bathrooms and locker rooms. And the player dining room features a one-star Michelin chef brought in from Italy.

"All the small details that the players care about: locker room, showers or balls, or space, playing room, quality of the food, everything is a very high level," Djokovic said, referencing Shanghai. "This is something that is important, and this tournament should be an example to all of the other tournaments. I am not saying that the other tournaments are bad -- there are many good tournaments, but this is the way it should look."

Djokovic serves on the Player Council with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, which happened when the threesome was dissatisfied with former ATP leader Etienne de Villiers, who left at the end of last season.

Now, they're working to rebuild a solid relationship with the new leader, and Djokovic believes Helfant is taking their concerns on board.

"It's a process," Djokovic said. "I think that there was not enough communication between the players and the tournaments and in one way, it's the players' fault. [They] talk about it between each other and in the locker room, [that] things that can be improved and then when the time comes to talk about it and really do something about it, they stop. So this is very important that we get united and everybody tries to do something."

Despite the outside interests, Djokovic's main dedication is to his tennis, and he arrived in Shanghai coming off a victory at the Beijing tournament last week. In an effort to improve, he's employed former two-time Grand Slam finalist Todd Martin as a tag-team coach to his longtime coaching relationship with Marian Vajda.

Martin has improved Djokovic's volleys, slices and shotmaking. And Martin offers a positive energy and calming effect Djokovic believes will counter his emotionally charged persona.

"I just want to continue playing tournament after tournament and building up a good shape, good form, and right now I'm in a good way," Djokovic said. "Physically I'm feeling very fit, and mentally I'm motivated to achieve good results."