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February 2012
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IT'S TENNIS SEASON!

Yep, it's that time of year again.

I love tennis, even though I suck at it. When people find out that I played on the tennis team in high school, they all say, "Oh, you must have been really good!"

Uh, no. Not really. My high school was just so small, making the tennis team was pretty much a matter of showing up and looking vaguely interested. My parents had both played, so I did start learning the basics at a relatively young age, but I was never going to be more than just adequate.

Still, I loved it and had fun, and if I gave up everything I was bad at, I'd never do anything.

Watching the elite of the sport, though, has always been AMAZING.

I loathe Roger Federer with the fiery passion of a thousand burning suns, but I have to give him credit for making tennis look like the easiest thing ever. His physical grace on the court is truly astonishing, and in the current era of power tennis, points to him for sticking with the one-handed backhand.

Rafael Nadal has the most savage forehand I've ever seen, and an impressive-- if overwhelming-- game that raises the power game by several orders of magnitude. Sometimes I wonder, though, why nobody else realizes that he's OCD, and that his numbers are all odd. It must be killing him by inches to be ranked No. 2. Maybe that's why he can't seem to beat Djokovic.

Ah, yes, Novak Djokovic.

I've had my eye on him since he turned pro in 2003, when he was just some Serbian throwaway who showed up on TV long enough for the big guys to wallop into the ground. He caught my attention, though, because his style of play reminded me of Ivan Lendl, who I'd admired very much back in his heyday. So I kept on studying Djokovic, watching how he improved and climbed steadily up the ranks, and then came the 2008 Australian Open. When he won the trophy, I said, Someday that kid's gonna be Number One.

Everyone in the sports world called Djokovic a flash-in-the-pan. When he made it to the Number Three ranking, they said he'd never get any higher. When he kept losing in quarterfinals, semifinals, even finals of majors, they said he'd never win another title. They sneered at his fits of temper, his on-court antics, the dramatics of the family members who made up his entourage. He wasn't as courtly and polished as Federer, as humble and likable as Nadal. It was easy for them to badmouth Djokovic.

And then came the 2011 season.

The No. 1 ranking finally his, an astonishing 70-6 record . . . and still, the naysayers are out there trying to tear him down.

I think a big part of it is that Federer and Nadal have had things locked up for so long, anyone else who challenges their duopoly is dismissed by the tennis world as an interloper. It's "ostrich tennis", in my book . . . they refuse to acknowledge Djokovic, so therefore, he doesn't actually exist. Part of it is that tennis is seen as a gentleman's sport. It's very rule- and class-oriented, even if people don't like to admit it out loud. There's not much room in there for upstart young players from war-torn Balkan nations. Tennis is extremely snooty-- remember the fuss when players started adding color to their ensembles? ( And to wear anything other than all-white at Wimbledon is still unthinkable. ) The establishment of tennis likes its players to come from a certain world and to behave a certain way. It's what made Federer their poster boy.

Then Nadal roared in and didn't just upset the status quo so much as he bulldozed it flat and poured new courts over it. But he was so personable, so likable, that everyone was utterly charmed by him. Even Federer, I suspect.

Djokovic comes across as very genuine, however. He's not always charming, though he often is. Sometimes he's snippy, even through the constant joking around that earned him that ridiculous nickname. He has a temper that he has to work to control, just like everyone else in the world, and sometimes, he fails. He turns that temper on himself, though, rather than on others like Murray does. In the 2010 US Open, during his loss to Nadal, there was a point where Djokovic actually turned away and started smacking himself on the side of the head with his racket. It was a very . . . humanizing moment. He gets carried away with his celebrations and does crazy things like rip his shirt off or eat blades of grass, but when he takes that brief moment and crosses himself, it seems very sincere. So does his congratulations ( commiserations? ) at the end of the match for the opposing player. It looks like more that just the obligatory, "Good game!" that we all remember from our own sports days, don't we? Of course, remember too how we were secretly thinking "HATE YOU!!" the whole time?

I bet that's what Nadal is thinking now, every time he has to go to the net after yet another loss to Djokovic. Heh.

But be all that as it may, I think that Novak Djokovic is going to turn the tennis world on its head, and I think he's here to stay.

At least, until someone younger and hungrier comes along and chews the court out from under him.

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