Novak Djokovic will lose again. He might even lose tonight; his opponent, Kevin Anderson, stopped a similar hot streak of his in Key Biscayne in 2008. But before that happens, and before we try to answer any more unanswerable questions about whether he's going to sweep all the Slams and dominate the tour for the next decade while traveling from city to city on top of a bi-plane, let's take a moment to appreciate what Djokovic has already done. We know the stats, we know the 21-match win streak; unlike Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, though, we don't hear much about Djokovic from an aesthetic point of view. Even in his current form, there's not a lot of talk about why he's worth watching. Here are five reasons that come to my mind when I see him play.
It's So Much Easier to Watch Him Serve Now
Remember the old serve? Or, I should say, remember the old serves, plural? Djokovic went through approximately one per season. What united them all, though, was the amount of effort he seemed to expend. There was a hitch in the middle that he had to fight through; there was a raspy and fatigued-sounding grunt; there was a sense that he was serving up a hill and into the court, rather flowing into the shot. Djokovic still grunts, but the sense of effort and fatigue is gone from his motion. I'm not sure if his toss is farther into the court now, or he's changed his arm position when he takes the racquet back, but he's on top of the ball now, and it's penetrating more easily.
But I wouldn't enjoy watching the new Nole serve as much if I'd never seen the old. It's rare that we get this chance with a top athlete, but more than most, Djokovic's career has been a work in progress-it's taken him awhile to streamline both his game and, from what he says, his life off the court.
He Doesn't Put You on an Emotional Roller Coaster
In the past, even when he was winning, Djokovic played with a barely buried edge of frustration. It drove him to play well on good days, but it drove him over the edge on bad days. There was always a sense that he might pull the plug at a certain point and just start smacking balls; then, when a few of those balls went in, he'd be right back to sticking his tongue in his cheek and pounding his chest. Not so anymore.
Of course this is a chicken and egg situation: If Djokovic ever plays another close match, he might be right back on the roller coaster. And the old signs of frustration did surface in his matches at Indian Wells. I used to get kick out of the dramatic Nole, but I enjoy the serene version more. There's an easy sense of purpose to the way he moves between points now, a command that's calming to see.
Past men's singles champions at the Australian Open Australian Open men's champions From Rod Laver to Novak Djokovic, take a look at the Open era champions Down Under. Slideshow
Maybe it's the shiny black clothes he's been wearing. Maybe it's the white sneakers. Maybe it's because he's dropped a few pounds. But Djokovic seems to be moving with more ease than ever. Is he more fluid than Federer himself? He doesn't attack the ball when he moves forward, the way Federer does; Djokovic always seems to be cruising, but he's always there. His specialty is the side to side; from his rubber-legged flying split step to his lightning shuffle across the baseline, Djokovic often looks like he's dancing back there. It's tough to get anything by him these days.
Past men's singles champions at the Australian Open
Australian Open men's champions
From Rod Laver to Novak Djokovic, take a look at the Open era champions Down Under.
The Long Forehand Roll and the Short Backhand Takeback
Djokovic's strokes split the difference between style and efficiency. Where Federer's are elegant and elongated, Djokovic's are compact and sleek. What I've loved during this run is the easy roll of his crosscourt forehand; he's making that shot look effortless at the moment. I've always been a fan of the Nadal inside-in forehand, where he gets it side-spinning out of his opponent's reach. But Djokovic's inside-in might be even better these days. His hapless opponents are nowhere near the thing. On the other side, I like the abbreviated backswing on the backhand. It's nothing more than what's necessary, but at the same time it's not just utilitarian-it works, but it's not workmanlike.
Scenes from Down Under Check out the best images from the 2011 Australian Open. Slideshow
Djokovic has always wanted to be the Man, even if it means forcing the issue. Even if it means having your entourage wear shirts with your face on it; speculating about moving to the U.K. to further your sponsorship opportunities; changing racquet companies so you can be the top name at Head, rather than second fiddle to Federer at Wilson. Djokovic is from a small country, and not a rich country, and he and his family have shouted to be heard.
Scenes from Down Under
Check out the best images from the 2011 Australian Open.
Do you find this obnoxious? I think it's touching, because underneath the obvious desire for glory, Djokovic is a nice guy and a classy loser. I was scheduled to interview him in Rome in 2007. The interview, as these things usually are, was put off for a couple of days. Finally I was told I would get him after one of his press conferences. But when he finished, Djokovic started to walk off with a friend. Thinking it was my last chance, that the whole trip was going to be wasted, I shouted from behind him, "Novak!" It must come off as pretty rude, but he turned around and smiled, shook my hand, and said, "Oh, hey, sorry, I'll be ready in a minute." And he was.
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