No Longer an Understudy, Djokovic on Same Stage as Federer, Nadal

My column, reporting from Australia for AOL Fanhouse

MELBOURNE, Australia — We knew the final of the Australian Open was going to be Novak Djokovic against Andy Murray, of course. But when they introduced the players before the match Sunday, it seemed as if the wrong guys came out of the tunnel.

You go to a play to see the big stars, and are told that they won’t be there tonight. Instead, you get the understudies. It’s hard not to feel that something is missing. In this case: Roger Federerand Rafael Nadal.

In the end, Djokovic crushed Murray, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3, and then, in his typical colorful way, went nuts. Djokovic threw his racket into the stands, and then took off his wristbands and threw them up, too. He walked across the court, pointed at the fans with Serbian flags, the ones who had been singing and chanting all night, and took off his shirt and threw it up to them.

Then, back to the other side of the court, the shoes came off, and he threw them up, too.

OK, stop right there, Novak. He was running out of things to take off. What fun, though.

Djokovic might have gone into this tournament as the understudy with the quirky personality, the perpetual backup. But he doesn’t come out that way.

“I am living the dream of any tennis player. . .” he said. “I don’t want to stop here.”

Welcome to the mountaintop, Novak. Or, actually, welcome back to it. Djokovic was there once before, when he won this same tournament three years ago. It didn’t last, though, as he went right back into his familiar spot after Nadal crushed him at the French Open.

That’s to say he went back to irritating other players, giving excuses, and then, losing his serve.

This time, he’s here to stay.

I think.

“Yes, I feel like a more experienced player,” he said. “Physically I’m stronger. I’m faster. Mentally I’m more motivated. I know how to react in certain moments, and I know how to play on a big stage.”

He looked so strong throughout the tournament. His forehand now is one of the biggest weapons on tour. Djokovic broke down Murray the same way he broke down Federer in the semifinals.

With relentlessness.

By the middle of the second set in the semis, Federer buckled, and Djokovic steamrolled him. On Sunday, Murray put up an intense fight at first, too, just the way Federer had.

But serving at 4-5 in the first set, Murray just deflated. Djokovic was starting a run in which he won seven straight games.

If Djokovic has elevated himself into the Nadal-Federer category, though, Murray is stuck as the understudy. At 23, he now has been to three major finals, not winning one set, not to mention a match.

“I want to try to win one, of course,” Murray said. “But if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”

After losing to Federer in last year’s Australian final, Murray seemed crushed. This time, he seemed resigned. On the court, the awards presenters and Djokovic gave the same consolation Murray got last year: his time will come.

He has to be filled with doubts. He loses his focus, and just doesn’t seem like a fighter.

Djokovic, 23, has always been such a curiosity. He was known for his player impressions, including Nadal, Maria Sharapova, and Andy Roddick. In general, players were ticked off about it.

He also was a notorious excuse-maker. Every time something goes wrong, he seems to be suffering from some breathing problem. That’s not to say his problems aren’t real, but only that players feel he’s taking credit from them.

At the U.S. Open a few years ago, someone asked Roddick about Djokovic having an ankle or hip problem.

“Isn’t it both of them?” Roddick said. “And a back and a hip? And a cramp.

“Bird flu. Anthrax. SARS. Common cough and cold.”

This past year, I’ve gotten to see Djokovic several times in several places around the world. In Cincinnati, he entered an interview room with only three or four of us there. He went into a routine of being so nervous in front of so many cameras, thanking us for coming.

On the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, the off day, he played Robin Soderling in a tiebreaker on a practice court. When Djokovic won, Soderling pulled a small bill out of his wallet, wadded it up and threw it at Djokovic, who would un-crumple it, kiss it, show it to me and say, “My work is done here.”

Personality. Tennis can use it, especially at the top. 

But is that where Djokovic is going to stay? After winning in 2008, he took one step back of the mountaintop, still hanging around as the third or fourth best player.

The understudy.

This past year, he completely lost his serve. It was awful as he seemed to want to hit it without bending his elbow.

He beat Federer in the semis at the U.S. Open in 2010, losing to Nadal in the final. And now he has won here. And his serve is a weapon.

So I asked him how he fixed it.

“Well, hitting thousands and thousands of balls on the practice. . .” he said. “Of course, I was aware of what I do wrong. But once it gets into your head, it’s really hard to get it out of your habit. Everybody was criticizing me: `Why did I change my serve?’ I didn’t change it intentionally. It just came like that.

Somewhere in there, he hired former U.S. player Todd Martin to help him, and that relationship didn’t last. Djokovic said, too, that he had some personal problems, which he didn’t specify, that were affecting his play.

Can he actually get all the way to No. 1? Yes, but it’s not likely. Nadal is still the best player, but he hurt his leg, apparently his hamstring, here. His body is unreliable. Federer has lost to Djokovic in consecutive majors.

“Still, Rafa and Roger are the two best players in the world,” he said. “No question about that.”

Maybe so, but there is room for three at the top. Djokovic is now part of the main act.

Please follow me on Twitter @gregcouch

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

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