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The rise & rise of Djokovic

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He was the shadow man, tucked away in a corner, on the periphery of the big stage co-owned by the titans of tennis. Novak Djokovic's arrival four years ago at the Australian Open, where he claimed his first Grand Slam title, was met with applause, polite more than passionate. It was perhaps an unfair reception for a world No. 3, who finished in that position for four successive seasons. But with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer holding court and all the aces, the top tier was booked and locked. The king, the challenger and the rest of the pack, or so the story went.

The monopoly was snapped in the searing heat of Melbourne earlier this year. If anyone had the time for any player other than the irrepressible Spanish world No. 1, they may have noticed signs of a breakthrough from the theatric Serb late last season. Prior to 2011, between them, Federer and Nadal had accounted for all the Grand Slam titles in the last five years, save two - the '08 Aus Open and the '09 US Open - such was the level of dominance. The Belgrade born 24-year-old's winning run this year hit the tennis world like a streak of lightning in the dead of night. He remains unbeaten after 41 matches (at the time of going to press) that have won him seven titles. However it is his domination of tennis' elite circle - Nadal (4-0 win/loss this year) and Federer (3-0 ) - more than his unbeaten run that marks the principle difference between the Djokovic of today and the player of say 12 months ago.

Understandably then, at courtside and at press conferences the world over, scribes and spectators alike are asking the 'where', 'when' and 'how' questions. Djokovic, owner of the most destructive backhand in the game, a heavy metal, two-handed shot that can be absolutely lethal especially when played down-the-line, is teeing off at will now. He has also shored up his forehand and serve in the new year, both of which were suspect under pressure. As was obvious in the Australian Open, where he gave the young Scot Andy Murray lessons in power play and poise, the Serb is striking the ball freely, hitting the lines and going for big shots in tight situations.

All those qualities were sufficiently magnified during his four wins over the world No. 1 this year. The first two victories came on hard courts in the US, both three-setters in finals in Indian Wells and Miami, where he flaunted his fitness levels against the man who had rewritten those very books not so long ago. Then came the two straight-set wins over Nadal on clay, a surface on which Djokovic had lost all nine previous meetings with the Spaniard. While the win in Madrid was a shocker, the 6-4, 6-4 title triumph in Rome was a sucker punch. It had all the fleet-footed quality of a Mohammed Ali bout and the brute power of a Mike Tyson knockout. It must be said right here, however, that the Spaniard hasn't been at his steely best this season, but the world No. 2 can hardly be held responsible for that.

This has obviously been his turnaround year. Following his breakthrough in 2008, the Serb powerhouse struggled on the ATP Tour. For Djokovic, whose impersonations of fellow players have made him hugely popular among fans if not in the dressing room, the problems were as much mental as physical. In the past, during matches, he has struggled with allergies, breathing problems and heat exhaustion, which have led to medical timeouts, even retirements.

Shayamal Vallabhjee, a South African of Indian descent, a fitness expert who has worked with Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna, has followed the Serb's progress keenly. He said, "In recent months, his physical conditioning has been par excellence. In terms of speed, power and stability, he is better now than he ever was. His ability to move with lightning speed, change direction efficiently, recover quickly and explode powerfully is more pronounced. When Federer was No. 1, Nadal had to improve his game and physical durability to counter the Swiss star's supreme dominance. Similarly, Novak has had to step it up a gear. He has also been on a gluten-free diet (see box), to which he credits his sustained energy levels and exceptional recovery. "

Djokovic credits his physical progress to Igor Cetojevic, a doctor and nutritionist he hired about a year ago. "He has done a great job in changing my diet after we established I am allergic to some food ingredients like gluten, " the Serb had said in an interview. "It means I can't eat stuff like pizza, pasta and bread. I have lost some weight, but it has helped me because my movement is much sharper now. I feel great physically. "

Djokovic, the oldest of three tennis-playing brothers, shares his home in Monaco with girlfriend Jelena Ristic, who he has been seeing for the last five years (see box). Recently, while at the Cannes film festival, Djokovic updated his Facebook page with the message, "I am walking the red carpet with my girlfriend Jelena. This is a special experience for us. " In later interviews, the Serb spoke about the private Ristic, who hasn't been a common feature at tennis tournaments, but that is changing this summer. "We have love and our emotional stability has much to do with my success. I am in a great, stable relationship with a girl who is making me entirely happy, " Djokovic said of Ristic.

Even as his success and standing in the sport grows, the young Serb's fame is spreading beyond the dimensions of the tennis court. Earlier in the summer, amidst his stirring run, he posed shirtless for a fashion magazine. Later, the racquet he used to defeat Nadal in the Rome Masters final was auctioned for £24, 500. He even modelled a designer label at a fund-raiser.
Tennis, however, is the only stage that really matters for the young Djokovic. He may well win the French Open, dethrone the lovabale Rafa at Wimbledon and make the 2011 season his own. The thing about tennis though is that there's always next week. The question is: Can Djokovic's point precise tennis endure the long haul? To be sure, Nadal will come back stronger. Is there another level to the Serb's stinging ground game?

Sports Psychologist Dr Chaithanya Sridhar, who follows the tennis tour keenly, said, "Right now, he's in the midst of an amazing run. It's absolutely staggering, but it's not going to last forever. Going by his past record, he hasn't exactly been great in pressure situations. While that has changed this season, it'll be interesting to see how it holds up in the long run. " Dr Sridhar said she spotted two patterns with Djokovic when under pressure. He either loses his temper and lets out steam by taking it out on his racket or turns it inward which has led to medical timeouts and retirements. "He is a real achiever, you cannot discount that, " Sridhar said, but hastened to add, "Consciously or sub-consciously, at crucial junctures of matches he is affected by cramping, heat and allergies, which is not something we see often at the elite level. " Dr Sridhar pointed to the Serb's childhood, which he spent in part in his war-torn homeland, to state her case. "Evironmental influences when one is young are huge, " she said, "there's no saying when and how they may return to dog one in later years. "

Djokovic, owner of one of the most stirring streaks in tennis, will have to survive the test of time. Until then, it's a highway chase, the Serb and hot on his heels the rest of the Tour, including Nadal and Federer. In the bigger picture, the score stands at deuce.

(This article was written before the French Open semifinals)

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