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STARING DOWN HISTORY
S.L. Price
May 23, 2011
NOVAK DJOKOVIC ALWAYS HAD THE TALENT AND DRIVE TO BECOME THE WORLD'S BEST TENNIS PLAYER, BUT HIS NERVES AND BODY BETRAYED HIM. NO MORE. GOING INTO THE FRENCH OPEN, HE'S 37--0 FOR 2011 AND GUNNING FOR THE LONGEST MEN'S WINNING STREAK OF THE OPEN ERA
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May 23, 2011

Staring Down History

NOVAK DJOKOVIC ALWAYS HAD THE TALENT AND DRIVE TO BECOME THE WORLD'S BEST TENNIS PLAYER, BUT HIS NERVES AND BODY BETRAYED HIM. NO MORE. GOING INTO THE FRENCH OPEN, HE'S 37--0 FOR 2011 AND GUNNING FOR THE LONGEST MEN'S WINNING STREAK OF THE OPEN ERA

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Easier to represent Switzerland?

How to explain what it meant to his country when, at 19, he rocketed up the rankings? With each big win, everyone—his family, his fellow Serbs, even his government—believed more deeply that he, more than any tower, could be the symbol of Serbia's rebirth. Overnight his words had the power to inspire or inflame. In February 2008, fresh off winning the Australian Open, his first Grand Slam title, in Melbourne, Djokovic addressed by video link more than 150,000 people gathered in Belgrade to protest Kosovo's U.S.-backed declaration of independence. "We are united and ready to defend what is ours," Djokovic told the crowd, his face as big as a billboard. "Kosovo is Serbia." The night ended in rioting and looting, with dozens hurt; the Croatian and Bosnian embassies were vandalized; and the U.S. Embassy was ransacked and set on fire.

How do you see that?

The reporter waited. "That's not a simple question," Djokovic said finally. "And there's not a simple answer that can be given."

The next night Djokovic showed up late to the official party for the players. The Novak Cafe & Restaurant, a tony showplace for Family Sport's operations, across the Sava River in New Belgrade, threw open its doors and bar for dozens of models of the tall, short-skirted, high-heeled variety. This was John Isner's third time in town. "It's a pretty big party city," said the towering American. "And the girls are spectacular."

At first Djokovic hewed to the elite pro's playbook, retreating to a downstairs banquet room while the band boomed and everyone waited for something to happen. When he bounded up after an hour and grabbed the microphone, it figured that he'd say a few words and bolt. He had a match on Wednesday, after all. Instead, Djokovic launched into a supremely awful karaoke rendition of Eye of the Tiger, his shout about Risin' up to the challenge of our ri-val sending an electric charge across the floor. Women danced, cheering men crowded toward their Nole, cameras flashed. The song ended; Djokovic looked around. Isner had lost that afternoon. "This is for John Isner; it's his birthday today!" Djokovic said. "It's a Serbian song: You won't understand the s--- we are singing, but you will enjoy it."

After what turned out to be a soupy dirge, Djokovic insisted that Isner join in singing the next song, a disco-polka in Serbian about coital gymnastics. Thirty seconds in, the uncomprehending Isner wandered off as Djokovic, joined by Davis Cup teammates Viktor Troicki and Nenad Zimonjic, bellowed the refrain "Ja volim taj sex!" ("I love that sex!")

For those who like their athletes monkish, it was a disconcerting sight. Djokovic had long been tennis's go-to guy on YouTube, ripping off his shirt to sing I Will Survive, mincing around to imitate Maria Sharapova, mimicking the tics of Federer, Nadal and Andy Roddick with devastating accuracy. Fans and reporters loved it, but the more stiff-necked of Djokovic's peers, such as Federer and Roddick, found it insulting. And for years this looseness seemed of a piece with Djokovic's inability to break up the Rafa-Fed duopoly. The two tennis gods radiated a sober intensity, and despite Djokovic's occasional bite at big tournaments, he often shrank when the time came to fully take them down. He lacked gravitas. He seemed fated to go down as his generation's Marat Safin, the prodigious Russian talent whose fearsome backhand was undermined by a highly distractable mind.

But this year Djokovic has given every sign of being a changed man. "He's crushing us," Mardy Fish said in April. Djokovic's serve is one of the tour's best, and he's winning a ridiculous 43% of his return games; through Sunday he had lost just eight sets since last November. He has summarily dismissed Federer the last three times they've met, including a straight-sets slap in the Australian Open semis. His four straight wins over Nadal, all in tournament finals, are even more telling. Just when the Spaniard, coming off a historic run in 2010, was expected to consolidate his place at No. 1, Djokovic dealt him the kind of psyche-rattling losses that Federer rarely could inflict. In the final at Madrid on May 8, Djokovic beat Nadal for the first time on clay—handily—snapping his 37-match winning streak on the surface. "[My] Number 1 ranking is not in danger—it's finished," Nadal said after the match. "Let's not lie to ourselves."

In truth, Nadal will be Number 1 when the French Open begins on Sunday, but few argued his concession. When Djokovic beat Nadal yet again in straight sets on Sunday in Rome, Rafa's status as the favorite in Paris began deflating—fast. The prospect of Nole tying Guillermo Vilas's alltime winning streak of 46 with a triumph in the Roland Garros final no longer seems unthinkable.

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