Commentary

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.

Updated: June 5, 2008, 12:06 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

Novak DjokovicPeter Parks/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic has no trepidation standing toe-to-toe with the world's top two players -- as he proved earlier this year against Roger Federer at the Australian Open.

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.

[+] EnlargeDjokovic family
Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images Novak Djokovic has had a strong supporting cast through the years.
"If you have a crowd against you, it's a totally different situation. Then you're fighting against the crowd and your opponent. This can put you in a really tricky position. That's why sometimes maybe during the match, you know, if I see the crowd is against me I react crazy, but, you know, it's all part of the sport."

Last year at this time, Djokovic was a darling of the tennis world after sweeping to the French Open semis with countrywomen Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic -- new blood for a sport that, while not exactly anemic, still can use regular transfusions of personality.

Then Djokovic learned, like all young stars, the difference between a honeymoon and a committed relationship where fans are concerned. His withdrawals from big matches have drawn heavy criticism -- unjustified, he insisted recently, in the case of his semifinal match against Federer in Monte Carlo, since he was later found to have had strep throat.

It would be a shame if people cast Djokovic as the guy in the black hat simply because they think the screenplay of the sport demands it. A rivalry shouldn't necessarily lead to tribal strife. "He doesn't seem to me like he would be a good bad guy," Courier said. "He's far too likeable, he likes the spotlight, he likes joking around."

Benito Perez, Djokovic's media and marketing liaison, has booked Djokovic on Jay Leno and on the Italian show that is a "Tonight" equivalent with confidence that he'd be a natural talk-show guest. He's had Djokovic do photo shoots for GQ and Men's Vogue because the tall, slender Djokovic is a natural clothes horse. Perez has high hopes of broadening Djokovic's appeal in the coming months and years. But ultimately, Perez said, Djokovic's image will rest on his ability to get results and nothing else. It's mostly his own fault for setting the bar so high so soon.

Friday presents an interesting dilemma for Perez, who also handles Nadal's public relations. He'll prowl around the interior of the stadium watching the semifinal on television rather than from either player's box.

Afterwards, by his own set of rules, Perez will dine with the loser. "That's always what I do," he said. "The loser needs more support. Everyone wants to be with the winner."

That makes sense. And the fact that there are three men vying for the public's affection as well as prize money, points and stature should only make fans feel in demand, and grateful.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.