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Djokovic's win over Tsonga puts new face on Australian title

1/31/2008 - Tennis

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Novak Djokovic started making peace
with the crowd as soon as he lifted the trophy.

After beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (2) Sunday
night to win the Australian Open for his first Grand Slam title,
Djokovic knew a little public relations was in order.

True, he had kept the Rod Laver Arena crowd in stitches last
week with his Maria Sharapova impersonation. But Djokovic also had
upset Roger Federer in the semifinals and now had eliminated
Tsonga, who was riding a great wave into the title match.

"I know the crowd wanted him to win more," Djokovic said.
"That's OK. It's all right. I still love you guys -- don't worry.
I'm very, very happy that I won my first Grand Slam here, so
hopefully we'll see you here on this stage a lot more often."

Djokovic felt as if he had to fight two rivals -- the fans and
his opponent -- in beating Federer and Tsonga. He frequently yelled
when things went wrong.

"Sometimes, you just can't control your emotions on the
court," he said. "I'm still learning. I'm still young."

The 20-year-old Serb is the first man other than No. 2 Rafael Nadal to win a Grand Slam title from Federer since Marat Safin won the 2005 Australian Open.

Djokovic said he was under extreme pressure to defeat Tsonga, an
unseeded Frenchman who had beaten four players in the top 14,
including Nadal in straight sets in the semifinals.

Tsonga's audacious style, resemblance to Muhammad Ali and
magnificent run in only his fifth major made him a popular
contender at Melbourne Park. His great tale about his Congolese
father witnessing the epic "Rumble in the Jungle" heavyweight
bout between Ali and George Foreman in 1974 added to the legend.

The underdog story gained momentum when Tsonga's father, Didier,
who flew in from France for the match, stood and threw four right
hooks to celebrate his son's first-set success.

Djokovic admitted he felt the heat. But he regrouped after the
first-set barrage and began to climb back. He did not face a break
point in the second and third sets. He staved off one crucial break
point in the fourth before dominating the tiebreaker.

"Coming on against a player with nothing to lose -- he was going
for the shots and he was very dangerous, especially in the first
set -- I was pretty nervous," he said.

Tsonga, so aggressive earlier in the tournament, seemed content
to rally from the baseline, especially after getting passed several
times. The forehands that whipped past Nadal and kissed the lines
were wayward. And he netted some of the soft touch volleys that
gave him easy points against the Spaniard.

"I was trying to stay with him because I knew sooner or later,
with my style of game, I could get in control of the match,"
Djokovic said.

With Federer only two majors shy of Pete Sampras' record 14
Grand Slam titles, Djokovic said he needed to make the most of any
opportunity.

"This match was especially important because I was the favorite
and I knew everybody was expecting me to win, so anything but the
win was a loss," Djokovic said. "I wanted really to win because I
felt my chance. I wanted to win my first Grand Slam. Now things are
different."

Djokovic will remain at No. 3 in the rankings behind Federer and
Nadal. Tsonga, ranked 38th coming into the tournament, will move up
to No. 18 after advancing past the fourth round for the first time.
He thinks he has the game to crack the top 10.

"Not everybody can beat players who I beat," he said. "It's
very difficult, and I did it. So, of course, I'm confident now."

Tsonga was trying to give France its first men's Grand Slam
champion since Yannick Noah won at Roland Garros in 1983. Djokovic
was certain of the celebrations in his country.

"I can imagine what is happening on the streets of Belgrade and
Serbia," he said. "This is just something amazing for us."

Djokovic and his female compatriots, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, reached the semifinals at Melbourne Park, repeating their run at the last French Open. Ivanovic lost Saturday's women's final in straight sets to Sharapova.

"All the players, the girls, Jankovic, Ivanovic, everybody who comes from Serbia," he said. "It's such a small country with not
a big tennis tradition."

Sharapova won her third Grand Slam title without dropping a set
in a run that included wins over former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport and
three of the top four players.

She ended No. 1 Justine Henin's 32-match winning streak in the
quarterfinals, then beat Jankovic in the semis and Ivanovic 7-5,
6-3 for the championship. The victory erased bitter memories of a
6-1, 6-2 loss in the 2007 Australian final.

Sharapova will remain at No. 5, with Henin at No. 1 and Ivanovic
overtaking Svetlana Kuznetsova at No. 2.

In doubles, Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram became the first Israeli pair to win a Grand Slam title, beating France's Michael Llodra and Arnaud Clement 7-5 7-6 (4).

Ukraine sisters Alona and Kateryna combined for a 2-6, 6-1, 6-4 win over Victoria Azarenka of Belarus and Shahar Peer of Israel in the women's doubles final.

China's Sun Tiantian combined with Serbia's Nenad Zimonjic to beat Indian pair Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi 7-6 (4), 6-4 for
the mixed doubles title.

The tournament set a record for total attendance for an Australian Open (605,735) and a one-day mark for any Grand Slam (62,885 on Day 4). It also set a record for the latest finish, with Australia's Lleyton Hewitt finishing off 2006 runner-up Marcos Baghdatis at 4:33 a.m. on the first Sunday after starting at 11:47 p.m. Saturday.

Djokovic plans to spend a couple of weeks savoring the title, then get back to work.

"It's not possible that only one tournament is changing the
history," he said. "I played amazing tennis here, so I think I
absolutely deserved to win, even against [Federer] in the
semifinals."

"Sure, he's going to come back in a big style," he added.
"He's still planning to be the best player in the world. We all
know how good he is. We're going to see a lot of him, of course,
this year."