NEW YORK -- There's a Joker in every deck. This one has a first name. And a slick game. Novak Djokovic isn't the villain out of Batman, although he's been treated that way.
More accurately, he's a Grand Slam champion, accused hypochondriac and, according to the ratings, the third-best tennis player in the world.
|Novak Djokovic is in the U.S. Open semifinals for the fourth time in the last five years. (AP)|
Djokovic -- by now it should be understood the "D" is silent, unlike Novak -- made it to the semis Wednesday for the fourth time in five years, defeating Gael Monfils, 7-6 (2), 6-1, 6-2.
They played on Arthur Ashe Stadium Court, where the wind was so strong it was fortunate balls weren't blown over the stands to Citi Field across the tracks of the No. 7 train. "The conditions," said Djokovic, "were as difficult as we saw so far in the tournament."
What the 23-year-old Djokovic expected to see next was Mr. Federer, who in 2007 beat him in the final and in 2008 and 2009 did the same in the semis, prompting someone to wonder if Novak wished he was on the other side of the draw -- Nadal's side.
"What is done is done," said Djokovic. "The draw is the way it is. You know, I lost to Federer the last three years we played here. But every year I tried to win. I tried to go on the court with a positive attitude. He's a great champion, of course. A great player."
Almost on cue, there, on the flat-screen TV that hangs on the wall of the 200-seat interview room under the Ashe grandstand, was a video of Federer as part of the intro for the evening telecast.
The assumption and the hope of many is that Nadal, the top-ranked and top-seeded player, and Federer, No. 2 in both categories, will meet in the final late Sunday afternoon. Djokovic, who is third in the rankings and seedings, is unbothered by such wishes.
Rafa and Roger get all the attention -- their images are painted on the sides of the vans ferrying players from the courts to the Manhattan hotels -- but Djokovic can handle that as well as a cross-court forehand, something he did beautifully against Monfils.
"I like playing under the radar sometimes," said Djokovic.
He is Serbian, although like most of those on the tennis tours he truly is a citizen of the world. And you can tell he knows an American idiom. Well, most American idioms.
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Told his first-round match last week, the one when it was 109 degrees on Ashe Court, the one in which he needed ice bags and encouragement from the spectators, was a potential "banana skin," Djokovic responded, "Excuse me. What was the expression?"
When it was explained that, down two sets to one to Viktor Troicki, also a Serb, Djokovic might have slipped, figuratively, he laughed. "Banana. Nice. Good. I'll get that. Banana skin. OK. Sorry. I'm trying to get it."
He's also trying to get a second Slam championship. The Joker won the 2008 Australian Open, defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final after knocking off Federer in the semi. Yes, now and then, Novak has been able to handle Federer -- five times in 15 matches, to be exact.
He also has learned to handle the criticism. Djokovic has a reputation, not undeservedly, for getting sick or injured more than infrequently, noted as much by his colleagues as by the media. Although to his credit, he fought through the awful heat to outlast Troicki.
On other occasions, Djokovic has pulled out of matches for various reasons, so when he was about to face Novak in an Open quarterfinal two years ago, Andy Roddick was asked if it appeared Djokovic was experiencing hip and ankle difficulty.
"Isn't it both of them?" Roddick asked rhetorically. "And a back and a hip."
And he said there were too many to count?
"And a cramp."
Did you get the sense he is ...
"Bird flu ... anthrax. SARS, common cough and cold…"
Roddick was asked if he thought Djokovic was bluffing.
"No, I mean ... I'm sure ... no, if it's there. There's just a lot ... you know, he's either quick to call a trainer or he's the most courageous guy of all time."
Djokovic dispatched Roddick in four sets and then made a few disparaging remarks to the New York crowd, which idolizes Andy.
Fans here, as the Mets and Knicks know full well, do not suffer fools, losers or bad sports. Two days later, Djokovic was heckled in the semi against Federer.
Now two years down the road, Novak, having offered his apologies, is popular. The reactions on this breezy Wednesday were only positive, by both the spectators and the player.
Djokovic's father was wearing a T-shirt with Novak's photo on the front.
"I don't know what to say," Djokovic shrugged. "He's a proud father. I'm just glad to see them supporting me."
So this Joker has come full circle in Gotham City, and he's determined not to be foiled again.