Djokovic carries his aspirations on his sleeve
His brashness sits uncomfortably with the public. But it's Novak Djokovic's unyielding willingness to break the concrete ceiling Roger Federer and Rafael have created that makes him such an alluring figure.
PARIS -- Novak Djokovic has his dream scenario at last -- the chance to play both men ranked ahead of him in a Grand Slam and tangibly reshuffle a deck that has remained undisturbed for almost three years now.Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in back-to-back matches last year in Montreal, but that was with hard court under his sneakers and far less at stake. He can take over the No. 2 spot if he upsets Nadal in Friday's semifinal, where Djokovic is a decided underdog, although we suspect he's unlikely to curl into the fetal position in the manner of Nadal's previous two opponents. It's appropriate to say "at last" in this context because Djokovic has been hungering for this opportunity since he was a kid and turned out to be one of those rare youngsters whose childhood dreams are rooted in unerring instinct. Whatever happens at Roland Garros on Friday and over the weekend, we know that Djokovic can compete with Federer and Nadal on the court. Most recently, Djokovic tested Nadal severely in the Hamburg semifinals, boring deep into his service games in a match where the Spaniard's ranking also was on the line. Nadal called the three-set win one of the best of his career. It may be nearly as interesting to watch these three players divide the more subjective turf outside the neat white rectangles of their workplace. If Federer represents elegance and sustained excellence, and Nadal represents boundless energy and innocent charm, is there room for Djokovic in the hearts and minds of the fans who populate Planet Tennis? "This is an interesting year for him, a transition year, and those are fun to watch as an outsider," two-time French Open winner Jim Courier said in early May. "As an outsider who's been on the inside and gone through it, I'm always interested to see the psychology of the transition. He's one of the brighter tennis players I've met for his age." Nadal arrived at Roland Garros as an endearing 18-going-on-19-year-old who didn't know what he didn't know, and never lost again. Federer bloomed a bit later, but once established as a champion, set such a high standard that he could be regally gracious about his would-be opponents and complimentary about himself without seeming insufferable. Djokovic is different. He is The Ambitious One, the one who wears his aspirations like a sponsor's patch on his sleeve. He's the guy who moved his cot into the room where Federer and Nadal were amiably crashed out on bunk beds and started talking, keeping them from sleeping. The 21-year-old Serb has a youthful magnetism comparable to Nadal's, combined with the worldly, multi-lingual cachet of Federer. The similarities end there. Djokovic has a different kind of backstory, coming from a disadvantaged nation whose infrastructure was so perilous that his parents sent him to Germany to train and looked into having him compete for two other countries, Italy and Great Britain. His family is more visible than the Federer or Nadal clans have been (although Nadal's uncle Toni is, of course, his longtime coach). The fierce support of Djokovic's mother and father, their matching shirts and crisp comments about their oldest son's talent and intentions have drawn predictable push-back from Federer and Nadal partisans who were content to see the sport's world order stay put. From here, the we've-got-your-back approach seems natural given the obstacle course this family navigated, and it also offers insight into why Djokovic has come so far in the last two seasons. He had to have attitude if he wanted to break through the concrete ceiling the other two men presented. For him, saying was believing before seeing was believing. The sporting world generally values edge, but Nadal and Federer have occasionally expressed displeasure with Djokovic's version of it, especially before he'd joined the ranks of Slam winners. Federer has on occasion allowed a certain tone to seep into his voice when asked about Djokovic, while Nadal made it known he wasn't crazy about Djokovic's exaggerated pants-tugging imitation of him on live television at the U.S. Open. Djokovic backed up his brashness by capturing the Australian Open title this season. Some would attach an asterisk because Federer, whom Djokovic beat in the semifinals, was sapped by mononucleosis that hadn't yet been diagnosed. But the point is that virus or no virus, it took a player immune to intimidation to get the job done, and that quality helped Djokovic as much as his precise serving or his agility. The real footnote to that win was Djokovic's obvious discomfort -- echoed in his father's angry face -- when the crowd announced early and often that it was behind his opponent.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga played a mystically perfect match against Nadal and streaked into the final like a comet that at least temporarily blots out other constellations.
It was the first time Djokovic had ever been a favorite in that kind of match. He didn't handle it entirely gracefully. "He took the crowd on, which is not the smart play if you're trying to endear yourself to them," Courier said.Asked Tuesday whether he had learned anything from that experience, Djokovic said no. But he also admitted he's not the kind of player who feeds off hostility. "It's really important if you can get the crowd behind you to support you," he said. "You know, you get motivated, you get a lot of positive energy, and you kind of play easier, you know.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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2008 FRENCH OPEN
French Open Video
May 25-June 8
Women: Justine Henin
Men: Rafael Nadal
Day 15 • Men
• Ford: Nadal simply too good against Federer
• Garber: Federer resolute in confidence, ability
• Harwitt: Rafael Nadal the best clay-courter ever?
• Photo gallery: Best of Week 2 from Paris
• Ubha: French Open men's final instant analysis
Day 14 • Women
• South Americans take men's doubles
• Garber: Maturation, confidence help Ivanovic
• Ford: Zen-like calm elevating Ivanovic
• Harwitt: Can Ivanovic hang on to No. 1 ranking?
• Ubha: French Open women's final instant analysis
Day 13 • Men
• Bob Bryan, Azarenka win French mixed doubles
• Garber: Federer in need of a monumental effort
• Ford: Nadal handles Djokovic with relative ease
• Harwitt: Borg spends birthday extolling Nadal
• Who will win the French Open women's final?
Day 12 • Women
• Garber: Ivanovic, Safina set to duke it out
• Ivanovic to take over No. 1 ranking
• Ford: Djokovic ready to reshuffle world order
• Latest Dirt: Men's semifinal preview
• The big three: Federer looking past Monfils?
• Harwitt: Safina's mom has reason to extol virtue
• Men | Women
• Latest Dirt: Women's semifinal preview
• The big three: Federer semifinal streak lives on
• Harwitt: Rolling out the red carpet
• Tennis.com: Federer's time right now
Day 10 • Men | Women
• Garber: Serbs thriving because of each other
• Chip and Charge: Assessing the French
• The big three: Nadal-Djokovic ready to battle
• Sharapova to fall from top spot after French Open
• Men | Women
• Garber: Sharapova sent packing by Safina
• Latest Dirt: Americans officially done
• Garber: Ranking the sweet 16 players
• The big three: Federer and Gonzo to clash
Day 8 • Men | Women
• Garber: Ferrer worthy of being in top five
• Latest Dirt: Evaluating the top-five players
• The big three: Humdrum day for Nadal, Djokovic
• ITF to probe player's claim she was told to lose
• Ex-French Open winner Pierce hoping for return
See all stories from Week 1