By Lindsay Gibbs
There are a lot of things that don't make sense about Novak Djokovic, but one thing that's easy to understand is his love for the Australian Open. After all, he's had quite a few career milestones on the blue courts in Melbourne.
At the 2005 Australian Open, 17-year-old Djokovic qualified for his first Grand Slam, losing quickly to eventual champion -- and childhood hero -- Marat Safin 6-0, 6-2, 6-1 in the first round.
At the 2008 Australian Open, 20-year-old Djokovic won his maiden slam, proving that he was a real threat to break up the stranglehold that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had over the men's game.
At the 2011 Australian Open, a 23-year-old Djokovic finally re-gained his championship form, won his second major title, and launched one of the greatest seasons in tennis history.
Then again in 2012 and 2013, as his Big-Four counterparts Nadal, Federer, and Andy Murray continued to win elsewhere, Djokovic used the courts of the Australian Open to continue to carve out his place in tennis history.
This year he is attempting to win the Australian Open for the record-breaking fourth straight year. He arrives in Melbourne without the No. 1 ranking he so covets, but riding a 24-match winning streak stretching back to 2013. Oh, and he also has a very well-known but questionable new coach, Boris Becker, in his corner. With Djokovic, there's usually at least one thing that makes you go, "huh?"
Since his emergence on the tennis scene in 2006, Djokovic has presented the tennis world with a blend juvenile humor and brash honesty, greatness and flaws, insecurity and ego, that have made him an endearing but often confounding character.
To fully understand why, it's important to go back to the beginning.
This golden age of men's tennis began with Federer. In 2004, the Swiss maestro ushered in an era of almost unprecedented dominance and greatness, wowing fans and opponents with his effortless command of the court and racket, impeccable footwork, and unbeatable sportsmanship. But as Federer kept winning and began transitioning into an icon that lunched with Anna Wintour and hung out with rock stars, it became apparent that he wasn't everyone's cup of tea.
So along came Nadal in 2005, a stark contrast to Federer in most every area. Nadal was billed as the defense to Federer's offense, the grit to Federer's grace, the athleticism to Federer's talent, the sweat to Federer's shine, the humble to Federer's arrogance. As the prodigious Nadal began to make the ATP a two-man show, fans that were tired of the Federer years flocked to the young Spaniard and his piratas.
Of course, these divides were not particularly clean-cut, true, or fair, but that didn't keep them from sticking. And Djokovic just happened to have his breakthrough when these narratives were at their peak. And, oh, what a breakthrough it was.
For many, their first introduction to the spiky-haired Serbian was at the 2006 French Open, when the brash and naïve Djokovic gave a press conference for the ages.
"I was in control," he proclaimed to the press after he retired down two sets to Rafael Nadal in the semifinal. "I realized today that [I] don't have to play anything special [to beat Nadal]."
Throughout the next couple of years, Djokovic continued to show no respect for the co-kings of tennis, continuously talking about his ability to beat them and boldly announcing his intentions to become the No. 1 player in the world. In a tennis establishment that had painted Nadal and Federer as god-like figures, this was often presented as blasphemy.
Djokovic always seemed confused and troubled by the wave of headlines that would emerge after his press conferences. The negative energy bothered him, because at the core he was an insecure boy who just wanted to please everyone. And so, he started to show the public the fun-loving side of his personality, becoming just as famous for his silly impersonations of other players as he was for his tennis.
But even then he couldn't win, as people began to say that the good-humored impersonations were another sign that he didn't respect his competitors, and that he was all jokes and no substance.
Most of the backlash had to do with the fact that Djokovic didn't fit cleanly into a black-or-white camp, and that made people uncomfortable. He was supremely confident, but also fragile physically and emotionally. His game, with his strong backhand and return, was also hard to digest and define in the serve-and-forehand era.
There was more to it than just that, as there always is. Djokovic was never just playing for himself. His family had given up a lot in order for him to have his tennis career, and the boisterous bunch always made themselves known during matches, fist-pumping and cheering with wild abandon. His father was never afraid to give a controversial interview about his son's competitors. His whole family would don t-shirts with Djokovic's face on them. Some found this devotion and worship endearing. For others, it was the opposite. Tennis was a "classy' sport, and this Djokovic clan wasn't always respecting the rules.
Djokovic remained fiercely loyal to his family throughout all the controversies, as he should. He never forgot where he came from -- a war-torn region of Serbia, where he was now a national hero.
The Serb seemed to finally put it all together for his run to the Australian Open title in 2008, but after that, he struggled for a few years. He began to make strange and often desperate-seeming decisions about his game and his team, such as his failed partnership with Todd Martin that almost ruined his serve forever. Still desiring to please everyone, he stopped speaking his mind in interviews, and he refrained from doing impressions. He became so scared of criticism that his personality and his game became a shell of what they once were.
But something happened as the years went on and he began to become an afterthought on the biggest stages of tennis -- Djokovic grew up. He started taking responsibility for himself and his game. As has been much publicized, he gave up gluten and transitioned from a fragile flower to a warrior. He began to open up to the press a little bit more, showing his fun side again while keeping his veteran savvy.
And, he finally put his game together to become the champion that he always said he could be.
He is no longer a boy struggling to find his way who has to lead with his words. He is now a man who is in the middle of a legendary career, who is trying to figure out how to milk the most out of his prime. Things still aren't easy, but he handles it all much better.
The past two years have not been nearly as dominant as his 2011 was, but both years have something in common: He started with Australian Open titles, and finished strong. In 2012 he grabbed the No. 1 ranking back from Federer in the final week of the season. Last year, he finished just behind Nadal. His greatness is now consistent and expected.
There's a lot about Djokovic that still doesn't make any sense. Despite his proven greatness, he can still turn into a petulant and insecure boy when a crowd turns against him. He spent a lot of 2013 without his signature shot, his backhand down-the-line, and he often hits an overhead like a club-level player. Plus, his hiring of the bizarre Boris Becker is a real head-scratcher.
The reality is, Djokovic might never fit neatly into a narrative box, but there is no doubt that the shades of grey he has added to the men's tour has made the last few years a lot more entertaining to watch.
And, after a year that saw him surpassed by the resurgent Nadal, Djokovic finds himself back in a comfortable spot -- at the Australian Open, with a great chance to defend his title again and win his seventh slam.
As the rest of us try and figure out exactly who Djokovic is and what drives his choices, he just continues to add to his legacy and make his mark on this generation. Perhaps that's the only thing we really need to understand.
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