Novak Djokovic - The Swagger Is Back

Written By Lingkar Dunia on Thursday, March 10, 2011 | 12:15 AM

Courtesy: ESPN

Can Djokovic avoid the curse of Indian Wells?

There can be no greater advertisement for the futility of making long-term predictions in tennis than the case of Novak Djokovic. At the start of last year's U.S. Open, nearly three years after his lone Grand Slam title at the 2008 Australian Open, the Serb seemed permanently mired outside the winner's circle at the game's biggest tournaments. As good as he was -- he had reached the semifinals of Wimbledon the previous month -- it had become an exercise in futility to pick him to win when Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal were in the draw.

Djokovic didn't start by making anyone think any differently at the Open. In the first round, he appeared to be on his way out of the tournament at the hands of countryman Viktor Troicki, who was up two sets to one and a break in the fourth. But Djokovic rallied, as he did in the semis against Federer. The winner of the 2011 Australian Open and leader of the Davis Cup champion Serbian team hasn't looked back since.

As the tennis world gathers in Indian Wells, is it on the verge of a Djokovic moment? Nadal is still No. 1 and looking fresh again. Federer is still No. 2, and he finished 2010 playing as well as he'd played in four years. But Djokovic is the man on a roll, the guy who is coming into his own, fulfilling the sky-high potential he showed in 2007, when he was cocky enough to let everyone know that he was going to be the game's next No. 1.

Djokovic is now exactly where he found himself when he got to Indian Wells in 2008. That year he had also won the Australian Open and begun a quest to take over the No. 2 ranking from Nadal. This time, it's Federer's No. 2 that he could grab by the end of these two weeks. In '08, Djokovic came through and won at Indian Wells, but Nadal, after a titanic last stand against the Serb in Hamburg, survived the clay season with his No. 2 ranking intact and went on to win Wimbledon and finish the year at the top.

Can Djokovic avoid a similar fate in 2010? Which is more important in the long run, keeping his momentum going or not peaking too early in the season? It's a long year, with many switches of surfaces and locales to come, and Indian Wells is anything but a harbinger. Nadal himself won it and the Australian Open back-to-back in 2009, and then didn't win another Slam that season.

Three years ago, Djokovic projected an image of a man who was sure of where he was heading -- i.e., straight to the top. Not getting there left him confused; he was no longer the hunter, but neither was he the hunted. He lost his old world-beating confidence, and didn't really get it back until last year's Davis Cup final. There's no doubt that Djokovic will be ready to keep rolling in the desert, and that he should try to take that No. 2 spot when he has the chance -- it would mean avoiding Nadal until the final of any event. But he should also keep the tournament, and the moment, in perspective. It's virtually impossible for any player to come out a winner in both Indian Wells and in Key Biscayne two weeks later; that Australian Open momentum is going to end somewhere, sometime.

As Djokovic proved in 2008 and Nadal proved in 2009 -- and, in his own way, Ivan Ljubicic proved again when he won in the desert last year -- every tennis year is a marathon, rather than a sprint, and there are plenty of bigger fish to fry down the road. For now, Djokovic has put himself back in the conversation and found his old swagger; it's no longer an exercise in futility to pick him to win big tournaments. You can't ask for anything more in March.

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