Serbian rocket lands in Paris

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 May, 2011, 12:00am


While the Bosnian civil war may have ended in 1995, the memory of that conflict is still fresh. The former Yugoslavia was made up of a number of diverse ethnic groups and there was no shortage of warring factions. But with the United Nations International War Crimes Tribunal indicting Serbia's leadership triumvirate for genocide and crimes against humanity, the perception of Serbian aggression became largely ingrained.

Novak Djokovic understands this better than most. He was five years old when the conflict began and eight when it officially ended. A gifted child tennis prodigy, his only practice court became a drained swimming pool as Nato planes bombed his native Belgrade. He quickly rose through the ranks of international tennis before his breakthrough victory at the 2008 Australian Open. Along the way he would become a national treasure and was twice named Serbian athlete of the year.

He also understands his national duty extends far beyond tennis and acknowledged as much after destroying Scotland's Andy Murray in this year's Australian Open final. 'There has been a tough period for our people in Serbia,' he said. 'But we are trying every single day to present our country in the best possible way. So this is for my country, Serbia.'

The past five years has seen a renaissance in men's tennis thanks almost entirely to the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. They are easily two of the greatest players in the history of tennis and their clash in styles makes the rivalry all the richer.

Federer is imperious and elegant, almost floating on air as he swats one sublime backhand after another, while the charismatic Nadal is a powerful and invincible conquistador. Together they have combined to win 18 of the past 21 grand slams, including a number of memorable showdowns in those tournaments.

Federer has a career record of 16 grand slam victories, while Nadal, at only 24 years of age, has nine already. There is also one other thing these two great champions have in common right now: neither is as good as Djokovic. In fact, it's not even close.

After beating Nadal last week in the final of the Italian Open, Djokovic ran his record in matches to a sterling 37-0 for 2011. Along the way he has beaten Nadal in four straight finals including victories on the clay courts of Madrid and Rome. And when it comes to clay, no one in the history of tennis has been as dominant as Nadal. By the time the European clay-court season routinely rolled into Paris, the question for so long has not been if the Spaniard would win the French Open, but who he would beat. He has a 38-1 record at Roland Garros, has won five of the past six titles and, again, is still only 24.

Still, you want to bet against Djokovic? John McEnroe doesn't and it's McEnroe's record of 42 straight victories to start the season that Djokovic will likely break over the next two weeks in Paris.

'The competition is much stiffer now than it was in my day,' McEnroe said. 'The players are fitter and more of them are capable of winning tournaments than you had back in my day. What Djokovic is achieving at the moment is incredible, his confidence is sky-high. I'd very much like to see him break my record.'

No one has marched into Paris with this much momentum since the Germans in 1940 and for those of you clinging to the remnants of a Nadal-Federer rivalry, get over it.

Federer will be 30 soon, he may get hot for a stretch or two but his days of dominance are a memory. Nadal has balky knees and has played more high-level tennis matches over the past five years than anyone. He is an old 24. That leaves Djokovic front row centre, whether tennis wants it or not.

He doesn't inspire awe like Federer or drip of raw charisma like Nadal. In fact, Djokovic is normal to the point of almost being goofy. But put a tennis racquet in his hand and he is transformed, so much so that barring an unforeseen injury he has an excellent chance of winning all four grand slams for the first time since Rod Laver in 1969. Not only is Djokovic a seeming lock to win player of the year, he is also the frontrunner for sportsman of the year.

Imagine what that would do for his beleaguered country? These are obviously early days and anything could still happen with three more grand slams to go, particularly for a guy who has had some problems in the past controlling his emotions in big matches. According to the tennis cognoscenti, the jury is still out on how he handles pressure at key moments.

But pressure is relative. This kid from Serbia learned to play tennis in an empty swimming pool while Nato planes dropped bombs around him. Playing Nadal in the final of the French Open would pale in comparison.