Thursday, May 26, 2011

Djokovic: Nole's got the fever

Novak Djokovic / He's got the whole world in his hands.

Novak Djokovic is arguably the hottest athlete on the planet. Not just in professional tennis, mind you, but in the whole world.

Yes, the whole world.

Djokovic is perfect in 2011. He's won 39 consecutive tennis matches this year, including his first two matches at the French Open this week. Djokovic has won one Grand Slam this season ~ the Australian Open in January ~ and he has already amassed titles in Dubai, Indian Wells (Calif., USA), Miami, Belgrade, Madrid and Rome. At Roland Garros, Djokovic is seeded second behind five-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal.

Nicknamed Nole, the just-turned 24 year-old Serbian native has grown and matured as a player. Recently, he made headlines for revealing a new, gluten-free diet that has made him appear more fit and trim while also improving his endurance on the court.  Djokovic's world ranking has improved since the start of the year, from No. 3 to No. 2, and his sights are clearly set on becoming the new No. 1.  That's a position currently held by Nadal, whom Djokovic has beaten twice on clay in finals at Madrid and Rome  ~ Nadal's best surface.

Singing and swinging / Could Novak Djokovic be the next No. 1?

Based on his current performance, I like Nole's chances of becoming the next No. 1. Others like his chances, too.

American tennis commentator Mary Carillo, who is covering the French Open for Tennis Channel and NBC Sports, has nothing but high praise for Djokovic.  Recently, she told the San Francisco Chronicle's Bruce Jenkins: "Now you look at him and he's the strongest and fittest guy out there.  I'm also trying to think what anyone is doing better on the court.  Djokovic has the best forehand on tour right now, and the best backhand." About the winning streak, which includes winning his final two matches in 2010 (for a total of 41 consecutive victories, Carillo labels it: "A remarkable streak."

Djokovic is chasing after the Open Era (from 1968-present) record of 42-0 to start a season set by American John McEnroe in 1984.  Coincidentally, McEnroe is at Roland Garros as a tennis commentator for both Tennis Channel and NBC Sports. He spoke about Djokovic and the streak during an interview with Carillo that was broadcast Wednesday on Tennis Channel.

"(Djokovic) has it a lot tougher than I did," said McEnroe, whose 1984 winning streak was stopped in the French Open final by Ivan Lendl. "He had to win a major his first tournament of the year. Back in my day, the Australian Open was played at the end of the year in December.  We can all talk about the depth in the game being better now. The fields are tougher. What Djokovic has done is more phenomenal."

McEnroe continued: "The one thing he's had going for him, I suppose, is that the expectation wasn't as high.  Let's be honest. We still thought Nadal and Federer were the favorites going in (to the Australian Open). We were wondering about Djokovic.  Why is this guy stuck at No. 3 in the world, and wondering, if that was what his lot in life was going to be?  Is he ever going to be able to step it up and beat these guys?"

At the French Open  / Nole tries for his second Grand Slam of 2011.

Instead, Djokovic put together an impressive two-week run in Melbourne, and hasn't looked back.  During the winning streak, he's 4-0 against Nadal and 3-0 against former No. 1 Roger Federer, who is in the same half of the singles draw as Djokovic at Roland Garros.

"I got to hand it to him. (The streak) has been a great shot in the arm for tennis," said McEnroe.  It's a bummer for me, but records were made to be broken. So, I like that. It's great for the sport, it's unbelievable. It's incredible what he's been able to accomplish."

Is there a moment maybe Djokovic, who is a beloved national hero on and off the court in Serbia, wanted to lose to take off the pressure from winning? Carillo asked McEnroe.

McEnroe was candid in his response. "I think there was a moment. In Madrid, he beat Nadal for the first time on clay. When he went to Rome and made the semis, he was still playing good tennis.  Then, he faced Andy Murray, and Murray nearly had him there."

Djokovic held off a third-set rally by Murray, where he trailed 4-5 and faced match point.  He reversed his misfortune and came back to beat his British rival 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (2) to set up his fourth final of the year against Nadal.  In the final, Djokovic was dominant in beating Nadal 6-4, 6-4.

"I think there, maybe (Novak's) thinking to himself: 'Maybe it would be good to lose that one, take some pressure off myself.'  But, then he showed character. At the end of the day, the competitor in him said: 'The hell with this.' He took some pressure off and he (beat Murray) in the semifinals. Then, he beat Nadal, again (in the final)."

The streak  "The run I've had is definitely something I didn't expect."

So, what does Djokovic think about his newly found success that has elevated him to becoming a co-favorite along with Nadal to win the French Open?  He revealed his thoughts during an interview with ESPN's Chris Fowler that aired Sunday during the opening day of this year's tournament at Roland Garros.

"The run I've had is definitely something I didn't expect to go this far," said Djokovic, who has won 25 career titles and led Serbia to the 2010 Davis Cup championship. "If someone told me I would go without any losses to the French Open, it would be hard to believe."

Djokovic will be tested throughout his remaining matches at Roland Garros starting Friday, when he faces former U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro, seeded No. 25, in the third round.  If he succeeds against Del Potro ~ and the seeds hold true through the rest of the tournament ~ his remaining opponents could include: No. 13 seed Richard Gasquet (Round of 16); No 12 Mikhail Youzhny (quarterfinals); No. 3 Federer (semifinals); and ultimately, top-seeded Nadal in the final.

"I think the hard work I've put in during the last year and the experience is starting to pay off," said Djokovic. "And my confidence on the court, I think confidence is obviously a very important part of your game.  You can get confident, but it's easy to lose. It's very important to be focused. I've been trying to work on my consistency.  I am a more mature player."

While it may be impossible for Djokovic's streak to go on forever, there's no arguing that Nole is doing some truly amazing things on the tennis court ~ and, in doing so, every match he's gaining new fans around the world.

All images courtesy of Tennis Channel, c. 2011.

1 comment:

  1. I'm still pulling for Roger! Granted, clay isn't his forte, but I'm a fanboy.