- Bonnie D. Ford, Enterprise and Olympic Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia -- To understand why Novak Djokovic is considered one of Roger Federer's chief challengers, it's useful to go back to the first time they played. It was April 2006, when Federer was well on his way to one of the most dominant seasons in tennis history and Djokovic was 18 and many links down on the food chain.
The two met on clay in Monte Carlo. Federer won the first set 6-3; in a somewhat stunning development, Djokovic won the second 6-2. After the young Serbian dropped the third set 6-3, he told reporters, "He was playing smart and I just made a couple of mistakes, which decided the match."
It was a simple postmortem that showed Djokovic was anything but awestruck. He later elaborated:
"The problem is that he goes to every match already a winner, you know? Because everybody is getting scared. 'Oh, he's Roger Federer. I cannot win against him. He's perfect. I have to play something that I am not playing, something over my maximum, my limits.' That's how he always wins, you know?"
We know. Federer knows, too. He's beaten Djokovic four of the five times they've played since that first encounter -- Djokovic's lone win came in the Montreal finals last year -- and Federer will be favored again when they meet in the Australian Open semifinals Friday.
But Djokovic's refusal to be cowed by circumstances has remained as consistent as the balanced game that has lifted him to No. 3 in the world. It's not trash talk, but it can sound like brash talk, and sometimes he gets burned by his own words. At last year's Australian Open, Djokovic glibly predicted that Federer would "go down" when they faced each other in the round of 16. Federer beat him in straight sets.
At last year's U.S. Open final, the 20-year-old seemed closer yet further than ever from meeting the standard Federer has set in recent Grand Slams. He let seven set points drain away, yet still contended, "It was my mistake and my weakness today," rather than Federer's strength, that made the difference.
Federer considers that a normal part of any top jock's psyche.
"Heard it before and don't read it anymore because it's the same thing over and over again," he said Wednesday after taking out James Blake in the quarterfinals. "This is the way you're supposed to think out there. You are not coming here to lose in the first round. You're coming here to hopefully do well and then win the tournament if you're one of the top 10 guys. That's reality. That's nothing new. That's not cocky. That's confidence. That's just a normal tennis player.
"I have absolutely no problems with what Novak has been saying or apparently been saying. I really don't care because he cares about his game, I care about him, and it's good when we play each other."
Still, no one expects Friday's semifinal to be a lovefest. Federer has tried to downplay suggestions that he finds Djokovic to be an irritant, but he has made it clear on several occasions that he considers No. 2 Rafael Nadal, not Djokovic, the biggest threat to his pre-eminence.
Now Nadal is out of the tournament, and for once, Federer has had a harder path than Djokovic, who hasn't dropped a set. After Federer's marathon five-setter in the third round against another Serbian, No. 49 Janko Tipsarevic, he was extended to tiebreaks by Tomas Berdych and Blake.
A well-disguised serve has bailed Federer out of trouble frequently in this tournament (he's slugged 81 aces in five matches). The experience gap between the two at this level, while still wide, is narrowing slightly now that Djokovic has reached four consecutive Slam semis.
Djokovic's play has been clean and efficient for the most part. He schooled young American Sam Querrey in the third round and then mowed down 19th seed Lleyton Hewitt, who was coming off his graveyard-shift match against Marcos Baghdatis. The only exception was a brief bout of nerves as he tried to serve out his quarterfinal match against Spain's David Ferrer.
Federer watched a little of that match, he said, but he's beyond the point where he scouts his next opponent.
"I go a lot with my feeling throughout the match," he said. "If I need to adjust something, I'll do that during the match, to play more aggressive or more defensive, playing counterpunching. You can always decide during the match.
"I used to concentrate much more when I was younger: my opponent, where does he serve, what is his better wing? Right now it's all automatic. I don't actually have to necessarily change my game a whole lot."
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Novak Djokovic is hastily emerging as the chief challenger to the world's No. 1 player, and he's not afraid to say so. But Roger Federer has heard it all and isn't about to concede his pre-eminence to anyone.