Friday January 28th, 2011

By the middle of the second set in their Australian Open semifinal, it was apparent that Roger Federer could not hurt Novak Djokovic. Heaven knows he tried. Over the years, he has tried in more ways than one.

It's easy to forget that in the early episodes of this rivalry, Federer was known to step out of character with some decidedly pointed commentary. Generally a pillar of class, comportment and respect, Federer simply didn't like the fast-rising Serbian player -- and he didn't mind saying it. I'm sure the memory only heightened Djokovic's sense of satisfaction at Rod Laver Arena Thursday night, although he felt it entirely unnecessary to mention.

The fact is, Djokovic is a thoroughly delightful person who has overcome untold obstacles: the horror of his native Belgrade being bombed during his childhood, stressful play under pressure, a pretty well-deserved reputation for hypochondria, fellow players scoffing at his hilarious on-court impressions, and a tendency to wilt in conditions of extreme heat.

We find him now a complete man: secure, decorated and on top of the world, especially after leading Serbia past France in that dramatic Davis Cup final last month. Privately, Federer must be marveling at how far Djokovic has come -- both physically and emotionally. He certainly accords a measure of respect that never existed before.

In one of their earliest matches, back in 2006, Federer was openly riled by Djokovic's somewhat dubious medical timeouts. "I think it's a joke when it comes to his injuries," said Federer. "I was happy to beat him. The rules are there to be used, not abused." When the two met a year later in Monaco, Federer became infuriated by the chatter of Djokovic's parents -- at one point turning around to mutter, "Be quiet" -- and in the ensuing weeks, Federer was quick to remind people that Djokovic "gave up" that day when he retired with an injury in the second set.

At this stage, Djokovic had a feeling he had truly arrived on tour; the greatest player of them all was taking jabs at him. Before their 2008 final in Montreal, Federer told reporters he "wasn't that impressed" with Djokovic, and after Novak pulled off a shocking upset, Federer called it "insignificant."

By the time Djokovic arrived at the '08 U.S. Open, his physical ailments were being questioned by many players (especially Andy Roddick, in the interview room), and in the wake of some bitter comments toward the crowd after defeating Roddick in the quarterfinals, he lost to Federer while being heckled into a shell. Djokovic had become little more than a sad, passive individual, and he sounded as if he'd aged a decade over a two-year period.

Although Federer now gives Djokovic some well-earned plaudits, he still claims that the Serb gets illegal coaching from his supporters, quietly making that claim to the umpire a couple of times during Thursday night's match. More to the point, Djokovic was simply the better player. He didn't need the slightest bit of coaching. He covered the court better, struck his finishing groundstrokes with more consistency, served better in the clutch. It didn't necessarily signal a changing of the guard, but it was a vastly significant match for both men as a new tennis year begins.

"You have to be patient, put some varieties and get Roger out of his comfort zone," Djokovic said afterward. "You have to try to get him on the run as much as you can, and try to let him know you're there to win."

That captured Djokovic's on-court presence as much as any shot. Unlike so many of Federer's opponents, Djokovic had a pretty good idea he'd take him down. Here's to an uplifting tale of ascent -- and a prediction that Djokovic defeats Andy Murray for the title Sunday night. The man is playing far too well to be derailed.

NOTES: If Li Na can finish the job by defeating Kim Clijsters in the women's final, fans will forever remember the shot that elevated her career into the penthouse: that bold, punishing, down-the-line forehand with a match point against her in the semifinals, Caroline Wozniacki trying to serve out the match at 5-4, 40-30. In any case, I'll remember Li not just telling the crowd that her husband snores, but actually making a raucous snoring sound, one of the great moments in on-court interview history . . . I admire Wozniacki's phenomenal defensive ability, but to me, the No. 1 player in the world shouldn't be capsulized in desperate retreat, lunging at yet another apparent winner and keeping it in play. There has to be some flourish involved, a signature shot, a knack for the kill. Li admitted that she went for broke so often -- contrary to her nature, based on past results -- because "I knew she didn't have a winner shot" to play . . . Li really needs this win, for at this stage of her career (she turns 29 next month), she can't expect to be a fixture in Grand Slam finals. It's remarkable to recall that she took two years off the tour (2002-04) to pursue studies at a Chinese university before rejoining the tour . . . Li was a rebel in her home country back then, fighting hard against the tennis federation for the right to choose her own coaches and plan her own travel schedules. If she is to signal a tennis revolution in China, her career path should become the norm, not an exception . . . Jim Courier has done a great job interviewing players for the crowd's benefit after matches, causing envy among journalists who hear such enlightening exchanges, then descend into the interview room for yet another dreary session. You can't blame the players, though. For one thing, they trust the likes of Courier, Rennae Stubbs or Sam Smith, who know how it feels to play professionally. Plus, the interview-room scene is invariably a joke. People are so desperate to ask the next question, they ignore what's been said and destroy any chance of a follow-up. There's always some clown in tennis shorts who asks deeply technical questions just to show off his wondrous tennis knowledge. You'll find the odd pervert who has a desperate, dangerous crush on one of the glamorous female players. And there are others who ask many questions, year after year, not one of them relevant, thought-provoking or to the point. I actually stopped going into the interview rooms after a while, lest I satisfy my craving to go in there with a machine gun. If you could condense that venue down to the 20-odd international tennis writers who really know their stuff, the players would be more comfortable and the improvement would be dramatic.

As a man who seeks order and perfection in his life, Rafael Nadal must be appalled at the fact that his two worst moments at the Australian -- retiring against Andy Murray last year, stifled by a hamstring injury against David Ferrer -- happened on Australia Day, with fireworks going off in the distance . . . Hearts broke 'round the world when the cameras zeroed in on the injured, crestfallen Nadal during a third-set changeover. Pondering his fate, seeing no way out, he appeared on the verge of tears. Here was a man who has given us so much, with such incredible passion, and at that lamentable moment, the strength of his will would not be enough . . . Ferrer proved to be the textbook opponent in such a predicament. He didn't show a trace of sympathy, using his virtuosity to run Nadal around the court as much as possible. And he accorded his good friend the utmost respect at the finish, refusing to openly celebrate . . . The replay challenge system seems efficient enough -- until it isn't. Wozniacki ran out of challenges at 4-3 of the third set against Li, which raises the question: What if the most crucial point of the match is a borderline call that cannot be challenged? What good is the technology if you can't use it? Mary Carillo has lodged that argument for years, and she's absolutely right . . . One of the really sharp minds in tennis, Steve Flink, has a fascinating take on Bernard Tomic (among other pieces) on the Tennis Channel website, predicting great things for the 18-year-old Australian prodigy . . . And here's another top U.S. journalist, Matt Cronin, on Justine Henin announcing her retirement at 2:30 a.m., Australian time, Thursday morning: "It was incredibly bad timing, deciding to do it about eight hours before the women's semis were to start. If she thought for one second about it, she would know that the announcement would take some focus away from (obviously) her fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters, China's Li Na, No. 1 Wozniacki and No. 2 Zvonareva. And how about this: Just an hour before, the ITF announced that Belgium would have a dream team for its Fed Cup tie against the US next week: Henin, Clijsters, Wickmayer and Flipkens. Henin hadn't even bothered to tell the Belgian tennis federation, or the ITF. I doubt she even thought about it, and as smart and engaging as she is, that's a typical, selfish tennis player's way of thinking." . . . Not every teenager has to shun the collegiate experience, or be home-schooled, in order to join the tennis carousel. Beatrice Capra, a shining light at last year's U.S. Open but struggling on tour (ranked No. 224), has decided to enroll at Duke. Ask John Isner, who attended Georgia for four years and led his team to an NCAA title: It's possible to be a tennis player, have a life, learn the value of team play and get an education, all in a single stroke of wisdom . . . I'd hate to see the U.S. Open leave New York, and I doubt if ever will, despite some disturbing rumors of late. But the Australian Open gives us pristine glimpses of the perfect center court: 15,000 seats, all of them in touch with the action. The inadequacy of Arthur Ashe Stadium becomes more glaring each year.

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