- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Novak Djokovic gave the capacity crowd at Rod Laver Arena what it wanted: the racket from his hand, the shirt off his back, the shoes off his feet—but, sorry, not the insoles. "That's the secret to my footwork," he said with a wide smile.
Aside from that moment of nearly naked frivolity, Djokovic was all business after claiming his second Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open on Sunday. He larded a sober acceptance speech with tributes to fifth-ranked Brit Andy Murray—whom he embraced at net after a 6--4, 6--2, 6--3 demolition in the final—to the victims of recent floods in Australia and to the people of his homeland, Serbia, who "are trying every day to present our country in the best possible way." He flashed a thumbs-up to his box, which included his uncle Goran; his longtime coach, Marian Vajda; and fellow Serbian tennis star Ana Ivanovic. Djokovic also invited the tournament's ball kids to pose for pictures with him and the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup. He acted, well, like he had been there before.
But this postmatch celebration was light years from the displays of immaturity that marked Djokovic's first title run in Melbourne, in 2008. His impersonations of other players (his Maria Sharapova was devastating), his love-hate relationship with the crowd (he called out Australian fans for wanting his opponent in the final, France's exuberant Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, "to win more") and the antics of his aggressively partisan parents and brothers (who memorably donned matching white tracksuits that spelled out his nickname, NOLE) made people both crack up and cringe.
"It's not always easy to find your identity when you're in the spotlight," says Kim Clijsters, whose 3--6, 6--3, 6--3 victory over China's Li Na in the women's final last Saturday offered another coming-of-age story. "It's nice to see Novak grow from a boy into a man."
Djokovic's growth spurt couldn't have come at a worse time for Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. For Federer, the defending champion in Melbourne, this Aussie Open represented a senior moment: The world No. 2 is pushing 30, he's married with two kids, and after winning 16 majors, he has nothing more to prove; his annihilation by Djokovic in the semifinals meant he holds none of the four Grand Slam titles for the first time since 2003, and he hasn't made a major final in a year. The top-ranked Nadal is only 24, a year older than Djokovic and Murray, but it looks as if he's about to endure the same kind of annus horribilis that Federer did in '08: A virus weakened Nadal before the tournament began, and a muscle tear during his quarterfinal loss to fellow Spaniard David Ferrer prevented him from becoming the first man since Laver in 1969 to hold all four Slam titles at the same time and raised old questions about the price his brutal style of play exacts on his body.
As for Djokovic, all the old questions seem to have been answered. His game is improved, his emotions are under control, his confidence is off the charts. Tennis's clown prince is finally ready to be one of its three kings. "Maybe [Federer and Nadal are] not as dominant as they were two, three years back," says Djokovic, who's clearly aiming for the top spot, and "I'm probably playing the best tennis of my life."
Not that anyone noticed at the start of the fortnight. Nadal's pursuit of the Rafa Slam, Federer's bid to defend his 2010 title and Murray's daunting performances in the first week all pushed news of Djokovic's stellar play below the fold. Never mind that Djokovic dropped just one set through the first five rounds and, most tellingly, did not suffer any of the puzzling failures of concentration and stamina that had plagued him in the past and made him a target of criticism—particularly after he retired due to heat exhaustion in the quarterfinals of the 2009 Aussie Open.
This change was partly due to Melbourne's unseasonably cool summer weather this year, but it's also a credit to Djokovic's improved conditioning. Still, he struggles to keep his cool when questions about his physical and mental strength resurface. "I'm very emotional, and I'm very righteous, and I don't like people to say things that are not right," Djokovic says. "I've never retired my match or said something without any reason."
He also had never entered a Grand Slam tournament in better form. Ben Mitchell, an 18-year-old Australian junior, practiced with all five top seeds but said Djokovic was "way more intimidating than the other guys. He has a good arrogance about him." He wielded it like a sledgehammer against Federer, outmuscling the four-time Aussie Open champion 7--6, 7--5, 6--4 in a semifinal that was a study in what Goran called "atomic tennis." Djokovic pulverized Federer's weakest stroke—his backhand—with deep, howling drives, many of which Federer shanked wildly off his racket. "Nole surprised us," Goran says. "He's really, really focused. He wants more."
Clijsters wants a different kind of more: more time at home, maybe a few more kids—definitely a more normal life. A decade ago she would have settled for more mental fortitude in big matches. But since winning the 2005 U.S. Open, then retiring to start a family, only to return to the tour in 2009, Clijsters has cemented a reputation as one clutch mother and has filled a huge leadership gap in the women's game.