One year ago, Novak Djokovic had just cracked the Top 30 after picking up his first title on the Dutch clay of Amersfoort and reaching the final in Umag the next week. On Monday, the Serb will be the No.3 player in the world again after advancing to the semifinals of the Masters Series event in Montreal with a 7-6(4) 6-4 win over Andy Roddick.
Djokovic has made incredible strides over the past year. His real breakthrough came during the American spring season, when the Djoker advanced to the semifinals in Indian Wells and won the Masters Series event in Miami. A few weeks before, I witnessed Djokovic take on a red hot Mikhail Youzhny in Rotterdam. While it was clear that the gifted 19-year-old was becoming a world class player, his net game was mediocre and he had the tendency to break down or go for questionable plays on the important points.
Djokovic was up a set and held match points in the second set tiebreak, but missed some easy shots to let Youzhny back in the match. In the final set, the Serb lost a 5-3 advantage and went down 7-5.
The name of Richard Gasquet popped into my head. After his unnecessary loss to Youzhny, and having the Djoker seen struggling on important points in matches before, I couldn’t help but thinking this guy could well have gone down Baby Fed’s route in becoming another gifted underachiever. I was quickly proven wrong.
Six months later, Djokovic has become another player. Working with Mark Woodforde has increased his feeling around the net immensely and winning a lot of matches has obviously been a big mental boost. Djokovic no longer falters on big points, as he showed again Friday afternoon in his solid win over Andy Roddick. The American actually holds the best tiebreak record on tour in 2007, but Djokovic was the coolest player came crunch time. Talking about tiebreaks, anyone remember his Wimbledon performance?
I’d really like to see Djokovic take another shot at Roger Federer. The last time they met was back in February in Dubai, when Djokovic was still imploding on the big points. Nole has shown he can hang with Nadal on a hard court, and with his improved composure, he could really challenge Federer, too.
After beating Roddick, Djokovic is now already firmly establishing himself as the No.3 player. That’s a pretty amazing feat, considering it has only been 5 months since the 20-year-old cracked the Top 10. The question now is, how will the Djoker deal with the week-in-week-out pressure of being an elite player? Quite frankly, Djokovic has been zoning for the past six months, if not his whole career on the ATP Tour. The only way Djokovic has known so far is up, but there will come a time when things don’t go as smoothly. Whether it be an injury, or a form crisis, dealing with such setbacks eventually determines how big of a player one will be.
If Djokovic builds on his current roll, we’ll be looking at a genuine contender at the Slams in 2008, and a threat to the No.1 position.
Nole vs Rafa, part VII
In Saturday’s evening match, Djokovic will take on Rafael Nadal for the sixth time this season. Nadal has won the last three encounters, but Djokovic hasn’t been fully fit in either one of those losses. The last time these two played on hard courts, was when the Djoker beat Nadal in Miami.
Rafa is still not playing his best tennis, though he performed pretty well in the third set of his win over Frank Dancevic. Amazingly, Nadal put in all his first serves in that final set, and he was not just kicking it in either. Credit goes out to Dancevic though, who really played an incredible match in front of an electric Canadian crowd. Canada isn’t known for its tennis greats, so the 11.000 fans at the Rogers Cup were surely going to stand behind their man in a big way. And boy did Franky deliver.
Admittedly, I haven’t seen a ton of Dancevic’ matches. But I don’t believe the 22-year-old has ever played a better match in his life, or he would have been a Top 50 player at least. Dancevic was as aggressive as he could be, attacking Nadal’s serves and moving in to the net whenever he had the opportunity. The Canadian showed some good hands on his volleys, although in the end he was just a little too erratic all-around to score the upset.
Judging on their current form, Djokovic doesn’t have to go down to Nadal. Slowly but surely though, the Spaniard is getting better. This could be the match of the tournament.
In the opening semifinal, Federer will take on the resurgent Radek Stepanek. The Czech has been on a good run lately, winning Los Angeles and taking out Gonzalez, Haas and Davydenko here in Montreal. Meanwhile, he has been clowning around on court, getting the fans behind him. I haven’t been particularly impressed by the way Stepanek has been playing though, and he will a perfect serve & volleying day if he wants to trouble Federer. Mr. Hingis will surely find a way to enjoy himself on court, but Federer should hit through his practical jokes.
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