- Matt Wilansky, Tennis editor
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Novak Djokovic owes his calendar keepers a generous bump in pay.
With only two weeks to enjoy the offseason following Serbia's Davis Cup championship, he had to make difficult decisions.
"You want to see the family, you want to do a lot of different things off the court," Djokovic said. "Maybe keeps your focus out of what you need to do. This year, I just had the team of people that was just putting the right schedule and then it made my life much easier."
Whatever strategy his entourage employed, it's working nicely. Djokovic has eased into the Australian Open semifinals, where he'll take another crack at old foe Roger Federer.
Mired in a lengthy malaise following his maiden major title in Australia three years ago, Djokovic is playing, arguably, the best tennis of anyone on tour.
So why the vast improvement? Djokovic says that despite the flurry of events that have unfolded since the end of last year, he's more organized and better prepared.
"You know, I felt like I'm starting to play my best tennis in last five, six months," Djokovic said. "I have more experience on the court. Physically I'm fit. I'm hitting the ball better, and I have more variety in the game."
Djokovic also went back to the drawing board to help overcome some misguided technical changes. His once-potent serve became a source of confusion and frustration. It devolved into a stiff-arm take-back, causing inconsistency, a loss in velocity and, ultimately, an increase in double faults. But he has reverted to his old, more penetrating motion.
Against Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals, Djokovic converted 68 percent of his first serves. A round earlier, he served at 75 percent versus Nicolas Almagro. Djokovic has been broken only four times in five matches.
But is Djokovic's rediscovered faith enough to foil the resurgent Federer? It was here in Oz three years ago where the Serb dethroned the now-four-time champion in the semifinals. And then a few months ago, Djokovic staved off two match points in the U.S. Open semifinals to beat Federer.
"I always try to win against him," Djokovic said. "No question about that. I've won against him in different occasions, mostly on the hard courts."
Djokovic has played prodigiously in Australia, dropping only one set en route to the final four. His Belgrade heroics were clearly a catalyst to his recent form. He came into Melbourne on a mission and mentally motivated.
Federer, in many ways, can relate to Djokovic's struggles. After winning the Australian Open a year ago, something just seemed a little off. Federer failed to reach the semifinals of either Euro Slam and appeared slow and lethargic at times. His title drought extended over six months after Melbourne before capturing the Cincinnati Masters Championship.
Like Djokovic, Federer finally sought out a fresh face and new voice to turn things around. Under the guidance of Paul Annacone, Federer's strategy became more streamlined and aggressive. Most notably, he began to employ a more assertive topspin backhand instead of relegating himself to hitting a safer slice.
"You know, with success sometimes you get a bit comfortable," Federer said. "Because it's working, why change it? Sure, I was always trying to look for new ways."
And so far, so good. Federer arrives in Melbourne at the peak of his powers, having won the year-end championships to end last season. He then started 2011 with a title in Doha. Federer is suffocating opponents again. After a five-set tussle with Gilles Simon in the second round, Federer has dropped only one set in his past three matches. His bludgeoning of compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka in the last match sent a strong message.
But Djokovic is a much sterner test. His baseline brilliance, defense and return game are a lethal combination. Djokovic also made it clear that he has little to lose against the defending champion.
Djokovic will meet Federer for the 20th time. The 16-time Grand Slam champ, who has won three straight in the rivalry since the U.S. Open, owns a 13-6 advantage.
As Djokovic says, the semifinals of a Grand Slam are unpredictable. And to the detractors who thought Davis Cup would derail his Australian Open aspirations: It's only validated his decision to play a rigorous schedule.
Need to get away? Novak Djokovic, who's had scant time off since leading Serbia to a Davis Cup title, sure doesn't. But is he up for the Federer challenge?