from San Francisco Chronicle
by Bruce Jenkins
NEW YORK - The sport of tennis felt different Friday morning. It felt fresh and alive to anyone who had caught Novak Djokovic's act the night before. There were replays on the USA Network, and not a shred of humor was lost. If anything, his on-court impressions of Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal grew more hilarious with every viewing.
Djokovic isn't trying to change men's tennis, or the way it is perceived. He's just trying to be No. 1 in the world, and he's probably a match away from getting a shot at Roger Federer in Sunday's final. Just by his basic nature, though, Djokovic has captured the public's imagination in ways that Andy Roddick, or even James Blake, could not imagine.
There is talent, and there is flair, and all those cliches about focus and determination under the white-hot spotlight of U.S. Open tennis at night. But who would even think of turning into a full-fledged comedian just moments after a tense quarterfinal? It all comes naturally to Djokovic, the 20-year-old Serb who rates third in the rankings and first, in a runaway, when it comes to promoting men's tennis. Super Saturday will be all about Djokovic, that's for sure. He'll be an overwhelmingly popular favorite to defeat David Ferrer in the men's semifinals, a match likely to carry more drama than Federer-Nikolay Davydenko and even the women's final, considering that someone from an unwatchable Friday semifinal (Anna Chakvetadze-Svetlana Kuznetsova) had to advance to face Justine Henin (it was Kuznetsova).
In case you missed it, Djokovic had just polished off a three-set victory over Carlos Moya on Thursday night when Michael Barkann, the USA Network's on-court interviewer, put Djokovic on the spot. Aware that Djokovic is famous for his impressions of other players, Barkann asked to see a little sample - and Djokovic, looking a bit sheepish, reluctantly agreed.
Within moments, he had completely transformed his persona. Dashing and imaginative but relatively serious on court, Djokovic became a masterful mime, staggering in his attention to detail. An observant mind reflects high intellect, and Djokovic simply became Sharapova, then Nadal, to the utter delight of the Arthur Ashe Stadium audience.
So who is this guy? A few details:
-- In a development that is startling to comprehend, Djokovic has joined Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic - probably the two most universally popular players on the women's tour - in a triumphant emergence from war-torn Serbia. He was 12 years old in 1999, when NATO dropped bombs over Belgrade for a 78-day period after clashes between Serbs and Yugoslavs in Kosovo.
Although he is reluctant to discuss that period, Djokovic tracks his aplomb and composure to skills he learned as a child. There were times during air strikes, the sound of explosions echoing not far away, when Djokovic stayed outside and continued practicing tennis. "Novak was very scared then," said his father, Srdjan, earlier this year. "But he never showed it. Now he is scared of nothing."
That same year, Djokovic left Serbia to attend a tennis academy outside Munich (run by a Croatian, former tour player Niki Pilic), and he lived there off and on for the next four years. Both of Novak's younger brothers now attend that academy, but their parents remain in Belgrade, determined to help build tennis facilities that will keep future prodigies at home (Ivanovic left to train in Switzerland, while Jankovic emigrated to Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida).
-- Djokovic's credentials place him right on the verge of a major breakthrough. He reached the semifinals of the French Open, losing to the great Nadal. The two faced each other again in the Wimbledon semifinals, but Djokovic's body was spent from a string of rain-delayed marathon matches with no off-days in between. Hobbled by a foot injury and a sore lower back, Djokovic won the first set but was forced to retire at 1-4 of the third.
-- He plays with an unusual thirst for risk. With Moya holding a set point at 5-6 in the second-set tiebreaker Thursday night, Djokovic went for broke on his second serve, unleashing a 118-mph bullet. If he double-faults there, maybe they play past midnight. Instead, it set up a winning point and the match turned irrevocably in Djokovic's favor.
-- A natural comedian, Djokovic has done more than imitate players' mannerisms. "I've patterned my game around many people," he says. "When I was 10 years old, I wanted to hit a one-handed backhand like (Pete) Sampras, and I was too small and skinny to do that, but I tried to take the service motion and focus from him. From (Andre) Agassi, I wanted to have the return. From (Stefan) Edberg, the volleys. So I was always trying to make the perfect situation."
-- When he first joined the tour, he wasn't about to make fun of anyone. "I was like a mouse," he says. "If I did those things, people would say, who is this idiot? I got more comfortable with it as my game improved. It's just a lot of fun. I think most people take it that way."
So many tennis stories are little miracles, impossible to script. Jimmy Connors was raised and taught by two women (his mother and grandmother) who advised him to take on the world in a fury, every day of his life. Sampras, one of the few teenagers to actually make that switch to a one-handed backhand, became a legend because of it. The Williams sisters were home-schooled Jehovah's Witnesses who came from a Southern California ghetto and shunned junior tennis.
Now there is Serbia, where three great players came first and the facilities will come later. It's a country known for ethnic cleansing, vicious warfare and what seems to be eternal discord, yet it has done more to lift tennis' reputation lately than the United States. For all the negativity surrounding the U.S. Open departures of Blake, Roddick and Serena Williams, there's a 20-year-old kid who heard the bombs' explosions and kept on playing. He kept his sense of humor, too. Novak Djokovic is nothing short of a blessing.
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