by Steve Flink
He has been a champion in the making for a long while now. He leaped from No. 83 in the world at the end of the 2005 to No. 16 a year later. Last year, he was a semifinalist at the French Open and Wimbledon, and the runner-up to Roger Federer at the U.S. Open. As the curtain fell on 2007, he stood proudly at No. 3 in the world. And now the estimable Novak Djokovic— a 20-year-old Serbian with a deep well of self conviction— has opened his 2008 campaign by claiming his first major title at the Australian Open. By virtue of that tall accomplishment, Djokovic has emerged as the chief challenger to Federer for world supremacy. It would not surprise me in the least if he finished this season having supplanted the Swiss maestro as the No. 1 player in the world. If he does not manage to reach the top this year, he will almost surely get there in 2009.
Djokovic nearly established himself as only the third man in the “Open Era” to secure a Grand Slam tournament crown without the loss of a set. He recorded six consecutive straight set victories on his way to the championship match, knocking out the two-time defending champion Federer with aplomb in the semifinals. And yet, he confronted the free-wheeling and spirited Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final, and the 22-year-old Frenchman was not intimidated by either Djokovic or the big occasion. Here was a man who came into the final on a phenomenal run. He had toppled No. 9 seed Andy Murray in the first round, and followed with unexpected triumphs over No. 8 Richard Gasquet, No. 14 Mikhail Youzhny, and world No. 2 Rafael Nadal. Tsonga’s 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 win over Nadal was a breathtaking display of all court, attacking tennis, carrying him into the final with the belief that he could compete with anyone in the world. He was almost unconscious in that encounter, blowing the Spaniard off the court with the most dazzling tennis of the tournament.
Tsonga is an athlete of the highest order, a competitor of unmistakable emotional energy, and an explosive player who can strike golden patches off the ground. He knows how to mix up his serve effectively, and he has fine technique on the volley. He has so many options that an opponent is seldom allowed to enter a comfort zone. Djokovic knew full well what he was up against in this confrontation, and the Serbian was clearly apprehensive in the early stages. He broke Tsonga right off the bat in the opening game, but then lost his own serve in the second game with three glaring unprovoked mistakes.
Djokovic was essentially on his heels for the rest of the set as Tsonga came at him unabashedly with bursts of aggression and unwavering intensity. The physicality of his game was presenting serious problems for Djokovic. At 4-4 in that opening set, Tsonga released three straight aces to hold at 15. Djokovic was uncharacteristically guiding his ground strokes rather than hitting through them freely, and his inner tension caught up with him as he served at 4-5. At 30-30, he was stationed well inside the service line for an overhead. He should have put it away emphatically, but did little with the smash, allowing Tsonga to roll a forehand pass into the clear. Down set point, Djokovic attacked again, punching a respectable backhand volley solidly down the line. Tsonga chased that show down, and lifted a topspin forehand lob down the line over a stranded Djokovic for a spectacular winner. That was a moment of pure inspiration. The set belonged to Tsonga. The winds of momentum were at his back.
It did not stay that way for long. Djokovic diligently orchestrated the points from the baseline, Tsonga lost spring in his step, and the match moved in another direction. At 3-3, 15-30, Djokovic lunged to his left for a magnificent backhand down the line return winner off a thundering 132M.P.H. delivery from the Frenchman. Moments later, Djokovic had the break for 4-3. He closed out that set without hesitation, prevailing 6-4. Djokovic was in utter control, exploiting his backhand down the line with increasing gusto and accuracy, making Tsonga do too much running and digging. He got the early break for 2-1 in the third set, held serve comfortably every time, and finally gained the insurance break in the ninth game with persistent returning and counter-attacking. Serving at 3-5 in the third, Tsonga fought valiantly to hold on, knowing that he could give himself the chance to start serving the fourth set if he could hold on. But Djokovic came through on his seventh set point for a two sets to one advantage.
It seemed only a matter of time before Djokovic finished the job, but early in the fourth he became preoccupied by a slight hamstring strain, calling for the trainer at 3-2. The highly charged Tsonga, realizing that Djokovic was under duress, mounted one last charge. They went to 5-5 in that set. Djokovic, who had lost 17 points and was broken twice in the opening set, had conceded only 15 points on his delivery since. But here, at a crucial moment, Djokovic faced his first break point since the last game of that first set. Had he lost this point, the match could have slipped from his grasp. But Djokovic audaciously bailed himself out. He played a backhand drop shot to draw Tsonga in, and then approached the net. Tsonga replied with a decent forehand down the line, but Djokovic cut it off beautifully with a crisp backhand volley winner crosscourt. He held on for 6-5 with a forehand winner and a service winner. Djokovic had stepped up courageously, demonstrating his greatness when the chips were on the line.
Tsonga gamely held on to reach 6-6. He had played his way back into the match honorably. But Djokovic was unstoppable in the tie-break. As so often is the case, he played every point in that sequence as if it was a match point. He gave away nothing, playing the percentages masterfully, making Tsonga understand that there was no way out for the Frenchman. Djokovic took the tie-break 7-2, and with it the match 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (2). He keeps getting better at navigating and negotiating his way through matches, at making the most of his talent, at exploiting most of his opportunities.
Djokovic had thus followed up brilliantly on his semifinal win over Federer. That victory was no mean feat. Federer had been in the finals of his ten previous major events. When Djokovic had lost to Federer in the U.S. Open final, he had wasted a 6-5, 40-0 lead in the first set, blowing five set points in that set. He squandered two more set points in the second set and bowed in straight sets. This time around, in their first meeting since the Open, Djokovic found himself in a serious predicament. Djokovic was serving at 3-5, 0-30 when he caught Federer off guard with a gutsy second serve sliced wide. The world No. 1 could not make the return. Djokovic proceeded to win nine of the next ten games on his way to a two set lead, and then he held off Federer admirably at the end, saving two set points at 5-6 in the third set before prevailing in a tie-break. That 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 (5) victory was thoroughly earned and well deserved by Djokovic.
In any event, Djokovic has set the stage for great things to come. He is a champion who can win on any surface. His serve is now one of the best in the sport, his ground game is right up there with anyone in the world, and he improves each year on the volley. Moreover, he is a first rate match player. There is no reason he should not win at least four more majors in the years ahead. He has the capacity to keep learning and growing his game, to make his presence known at the top levels of tennis for a very long time. As for Tsonga, he has now surged from No. 38 in the world into the top 20. He has enormous potential. He could well finish 2008 among the top ten in the world, and he will seriously contend for majors many more times. I have no doubt he will win his share before he is through with his career. Not only is he captivating to watch, but he is a complete player who will inevitably smooth out the few rough edges in his game. Tsonga will be a force for some time to come.
Be that as it may, the future is now for Novak Djokovic. He seems to fully understand just how much he can accomplish in this game, and that is good news for all of us.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com
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