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Serving Notice
L. JON WERTHEIM
February 04, 2008
In an Australian Open that was full of surprises, a healthy Maria Sharapova showed that she's stronger than ever, and Novak Djokovic dismissed—and dissed—the Mighty Federer
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February 04, 2008

Serving Notice

In an Australian Open that was full of surprises, a healthy Maria Sharapova showed that she's stronger than ever, and Novak Djokovic dismissed—and dissed—the Mighty Federer

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Tsonga upset Britain's Andy Murray on the first afternoon of the tournament. Then he raised his level of play with each succeeding match. Demonstrating a vast array of skills, he would belt a 130-mph serve, follow it up with a forceful forehand from the baseline, then head toward the net and finish the point with a delicate drop volley. With the exception of Federer, no player layers such power with such touch.

By the start of the second week, this sacre bleu shotmaking—and a smile spanning from one studded ear to the other—had made Tsonga the toast of the tournament. Crowds lavished him with standing ovations. On his off days, fans ringed his practice court. As one supporter's handwritten sign read, it's a TSONGA TSUNAMI!

By the time he faced Rafael Nadal, the second-seeded Spaniard, in the semifinals, even Tsonga wondered when he would "return to earth," as he put it to the French press. Not that night. In a virtuoso performance Tsonga didn't so much beat Nadal as render him just another admiring spectator, left to shake his head in wonderment at the tennis being played. Tsonga clubbed 49 winners to Nadal's 13 and out-aced him 17--2. After watching the match from a hotel room in Miami, San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker—who shares a French agent with Tsonga—was so charged with excitement that he couldn't sleep. "He's playing with zero pressure," said Nadal after the 6--2, 6--3, 6--2 massacre. "Everything is going good for him, every ball is hitting the line. It can't be his real level, no?"

There were strange doings in the other half of the men's draw as well. Slowed by a pretournament case of food poisoning, the Mighty Federer, two Grand Slam titles from tying Pete Sampras's career record of 14, never found his groove. In the third round he was pushed deep into a fifth set by Janko Tipsarevic, a little-known Serb. By contrast the third-seeded Djokovic ripped through his first five matches without dropping a set.

While most players revere Federer and regard him as a sort of benevolent despot, Djokovic, 20, goes light on the deference. His notorious player impersonations, a YouTube favorite, include a spoof of Federer's meticulousness. Djokovic's mother, Dijana, has already expressed the opinion that her son is better than Federer, just not as experienced. Last week Novak referred to Federer as "probably one of the best players this sport has ever had," not exactly gushing praise for a figure who even Rod Laver willingly concedes is the greatest of all time.

INSTEAD OF being galvanized by this brash challenger, Federer seemed annoyed. Playing Djokovic in the semifinals, Federer was impatient, fragile and unaccustomedly short-tempered. After he lost the first set, frustration was apparent on his face. Meanwhile, still ensconced in the Zone, Djokovic was almost frightening in his accuracy from the backcourt, and he served brilliantly. His 7--5, 6--3, 7--6 win marked the first time since the 2005 Australian Open that a player other than Federer or Nadal would win a Grand Slam title.

Djokovic was so calm (cocky?) he had to be talked out of attending the Police concert the night before the final. The match took place amid an atmosphere worthy of a World Cup soccer game—the crowd was overwhelmingly pro Jo—and Tsonga sustained his impossibly high level of play, winning the first set with a running topspin lob that was so good it was almost silly.

Then an hour into the match, just like that, Tsonga left the Zone. He lost the radar on his serve. A few of his mishits risked hitting Sting, who was sitting a dozen or so rows from the court. Tsonga's decision-making deserted him too. Djokovic, though, continued his unerring play and seized the match. When Tsonga belted his 41st unforced error, punctuating a 4--6, 6--4, 6--3, 7--6 defeat, Djokovic dropped his racket, fell to his knees and kissed the court. He had won his first Grand Slam title, and one has to believe there are more where that came from. "I'm going to be more relieved now, coming as a Grand Slam champion to all the tournaments in this season," he says. "I play my best tennis on the most important events, so it's encouraging."

It was well into Monday morning when Djokovic finally left the complex. As he made his way to his courtesy car, a security guard called after Djokovic to congratulate him. The new champion kept walking. Maybe he hadn't heard the man. Or maybe he was simply still in the Zone.

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