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SPORT

Novak: The man with the golden arm

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Djokovic, known as Nole to his friends, picked the 2012 season over his virtually unstoppable 2011 run.

Novak Djokovic appeared distant and distracted during media interactions at the Barclays ATP World Tour finals in London earlier last week. The Serb's answers lacked in clarity of thought and intent;the teasing wit was missing and the smile was forced. The world No. 1 was straddling two worlds - champion athlete and duty-bound first-born. Djokovic's father Srdan was battling for his life in an intensive care unit of a Belgrade hospital.

By the weekend, however, the charm was back. "One minute guys, before you all leave, " he said just as the 100-odd media personnel prepared to disperse, following an interaction on the eve of the title clash of the World Tour Finals. "I'm not sure how we all will be placed tomorrow, so I thought I'll do it today. I've got some chocolates for all of you. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, enjoy the holidays. " The wishes were for everyone and no one in particular. Djokovic then went around the room with the boxes of luxury melts, coaxing the reluctant ones, while playfully chiding those who helped themselves to more than one piece. Just as the 25-year-old was getting done, a senior journalist told the Serbian ace: "In my 40-years of covering tennis, I haven't experienced such a sweet gesture. Thank you. "

For Djokovic, God is in the details. The Serb is as focused on the little pieces that make up the whole as he is on the big picture, whatever it maybe - match play, family, commercial commitments, fan and media interactions, Facebook updates or fashion. "I enjoy new styles and trends. I think it is important to look good on and off the court, " he said. The wider world sees images of his snarling and hears about his imitating people, but the real guy is different. The world No. 1, who speaks four languages - Serbian, Italian, German and English - fluently, picked Serbian Nobel Prize winning novelist Ivan Andric as his favourite writer, saying he loved reading the 'deep stuff' when not playing tennis.

Djokovic, who noted that his wheels turned on the oils of inspiration and perspiration, said, there was room for improvement in his tennis, in preparation and execution. "It satisfying for my team and me to conclude this fantastic season with victory in the World Tour Finals, " a smiling Djokovic said, "It has been a long year, actually two long years and successful ones too. I didn't know how I would follow-up my incredible 2011 season. I believe that I should fully use this time, where I'm playing the best tennis of my life, winning Grand Slams. I can see now what I need to do to win major tournaments. This is my time, my moment. I need to step in and believe in my ability. "

Djokovic, known as Nole to his friends, picked the 2012 season over his virtually unstoppable 2011 run. He said, "I've had lots of success this season, but I've had some disappointing losses in big events, in a couple major finals. Still it has been a fantastic year, where I've had to face a lot of difficulties off the court as well. Especially coming into this tournament with my father fighting for his health, his fight gave me extra strength. Given all that I've gone through this year, on and off the court, pressures and expectations, I think, 2012 has been more satisfying for me than last year. "

Djokovic's challengers would agree. Andy Murray underlined 'movement' as the one area that Djokovic excelled in. Earlier in the season, Rafa Nadal said the Serb had no real weaknesses. It was Federer, however, who nailed the reason. The 31-year-old Swiss said, "What Novak does well is even in defence, he stays somewhat offensive. That's what separates him from the rest. Maybe for some players it's easier if a guy defends this way than someone who just gets the ball back one extra time and keeps him doubting. But the way I see it, when Novak stays on the offensive, he takes time away from you and that is crucial when you are looking to do more than just put the ball back. "

The Djokovic-Murray rivalry, with the Serb leading the British No. 1 10-7 in career head-to-heads, is tipped to be the mainstay of the sport for the next few years. Murray, easily the most improved player among the topfour this season, trails the pencil-thin Djokovic 3-4 in 2012 meetings. Murray, 25, stressed that no matter how close and competitive their matches were, and however little the difference between the two was, there have never been any problems between them. The mercurial Scot said, "On the court, we fight hard. Both of us tend to get annoyed with ourselves on court but we've never had a problem with each other. "

The mop-haired world No. 3 from Dunblane said the rivalry was stirred by the fact that they read each other's games well. Murray said, "You kind of know what to expect. I think that's why all the matches, especially the last few, have been so close and decided by a few points. The intensity in my matches with Novak have been extremely high this year. This year both of us have probably noted how each other's games have grown and that's why there are a lot of long rallies when we play and the matches are incredibly tight. "

Murray, often bracketed as Djokovic's tennis twin, the two were born only a week apart, said, "There are no major differences in our games. Though we have different techniques and strokes, I'd say our strengths are similar in terms of what we do well on the court. Our return games has been very strong for the last few years. Our movement is picking-up. That's why there are a lot of long rallies when we play. "

One of the most interesting pieces of statistic in the Djokovic Murray rivalry is that while the Monte Carlobased Serb runs 3. 2 kmph during matches against Murray he does just 1. 8 kmphs in matches against others. Djokovic, who pointed out that the duo met for the first time as 11-year-olds, said, "When I'm going to play Andy it's always there at the back of my mind that it is going to be a demanding match, whatever be the surface. I know I need to work for my points. I need to earn them. I don't expect him to make unforced errors. I try to hang in there and win every point I play. I try not to think too far ahead or weigh what may have just happened or what's going to happen. I try to stay in the present. "
The Belgrade-born pro stressed he always aimed to keep it simple. He said, "Because of the number of times we've played each other, and given how close our matches are, I sometimes do have flashbacks, my mind goes back to previous matches which I've won or lost, when I'm match point up or down. I try, however, always to be in the present moment. When you're playing in front of almost 20, 000 people, there are a lot of things that can affect you. I try to stay calm, focus on every shot. "

Federer's shoes as the game's No. 1 are tough to fill, given that as great a tennis player as he undoubtedly was, he will always be remembered as one of the finest representatives of the sport.

The 31-year-old Swiss master recently bagged the fans' favourite award for a record 10th straight year and the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award for the eighth time and second year in a row. He has huge support whereever he plays, that includes London, the home of Britain's first Grand Slam champion in 76 years. Murray. At the O2 Arena, when the Swiss played the home-hope Murray in a night match, Federer's supporters almost drowned out the polite cheers for his younger opponent. Banners that screamed - 'Roger, will you marry me?' or 'Quiet please, genius at work' - decorated the stands. Federer, the father of twin daughters Myla Rose and Charlene Riva, is one of the highest earning athletes in the world. Forbes listed him at No. 4 in their list of the top 50 highest-paid athletes.

Djokovic, tipped as the 'Robbie Williams' of tennis, who has entertained crowds as much with his tennis as with his mimicking skills, imitating the likes of Federer, Rafa Nadal and women's superstar Maria Sharapova. The Serb's flair for drama, however, hasn't gone down well with some of his peers. In China, during the Asian swing of tournaments, Djokovic won fans as much for his charms as for his curiosity that saw him signing his name in Chinese and even shaking a leg to the popular 'Gangnam Style' number.

Djokovic, who endorses Uniqlo, launching the newly designed Uniqlo match wear at the French Open this year - is brand ambassador for Learjet. He has also cut deals with labels like Swiss watch manufacturer Audemars Piguet and Mercedes Benz which underlies his commercial viability.

So, while Djokovic with five Grand Slam (CHK) titles doesn't quite have a kingdom of followers, he is slowly but steadily gaining in numbers. If there's anything that compares with the 25-year-old's growing popularity, it is his climb to the top seat in tennis, achieved through tireless effort and iron-clad work ethic. Whatever the goal maybe, if it can be worked at, Djokovic will get there.

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