(January 26, 2013) -- Novak Djokovic first finished No. 3 in the world in 2007. He was 20. And instead of heralding him as a legitimate new rival for Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer, I found myself thoroughly convinced that, in the long run, what he had in talent would not make up for what he lacked in character.
While his cockiness rubbed many would-be fans the wrong way, it was his failure to compete in tight matches that had my eyes rolling on a regular basis. He won many of those matchecs anyway -- thanks to superhuman shot-making skills -- but watching Djokovic whine in the direction of his box after a lost point or hunch over his racquet like he was about to pull a Pete Sampras got old, quick. When things got tough, Djokovic preferred to make excuses or, in the case of Wimbledon 2007 and the Australian Open 2009, quit mid-match.
Srdan and Dijana Djokovic didn’t help their son’s cause. Somewhere on the tennis parent spectrum between Richard Williams and Judy Murray, their boisterous cheering (which once earned a “Shut up!” from Roger Federer) and t-shirts oft-emblazoned with Novak’s likeness seemed over-the-top and distasteful.
I didn’t foresee my opinion of Djokovic, or his camp, changing. I also didn’t think they would be around long enough for me to reconsider.
But here we are, five years later. Not only is the wiry Serb perched atop the men's game, but he’s also become a fan (and media) favorite. He’s thoughtful and well-spoken. He takes time to interact with his fans, hosting Q & A Twitter sessions when he has the time. He’s legitimately funny, whether he’s doing his now-famous imitations of other players, dressing up on Halloween, or modeling underwear (yes, that happened). He even passed out chocolate to the press at the World Tour Finals in November (brilliant move, by the way).
While many players claim to “have fun” on the court, Djokovic 2.0 makes me believe the cliché. Nothing proved that quite like his 2011 U.S. Open semifinal match against Federer where, down two match points in the final set, he hit one of the more amazing return winners in tennis history, riling the crowd into a frenzy afterward. Of course, he went on to save the next match point, too, beating Fed and then Rafa in the final. His confidence in his ability coupled with his enjoyment of the stage seem almost "Jordan-esque" in nature; a rarity in sport.
Even as his hopes of surviving the surging Stan Wawrinka dwindled in this year’s Australian Open fourth round, Djokovic’s history over the past several years strongly suggested he would pull out a win. As a kid growing up in Florida, I saw plenty of hurricane-blown palm trees bend at impossible angles until I was sure they would break in half. They never did. Djokovic, too, repeatedly withstands the storm of his opponents’ momentum with logic and physics-defying performances. He often bends, but rarely breaks.
To be sure, it’s easier to be Mr. Congeniality when you’ve won over 85 percent of your matches in the past three years. But even after the few defeats he’s suffered, Djokovic has shown grace and humility uncharacteristic of his first years on tour.
Maybe his attitude makeover is simply a matter of maturity. If so, Novak’s has increased as quickly, and as inexplicably, as his physical fitness. His matches will never be a religious experience á la Federer or Nadal. But that’s what I love. I don’t want to worship at his feet. I want to be entertained. And Novak Djokovic delivers without fail.
(Photo Credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve)