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'Joker' comes up aces against Nadal in breakthrough

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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WIMBLEDON, England -- He was a mimic and a comic, an athlete with a reputation for capturing the routines and characteristics of others. His nickname, "The Joker," was as much reaction to his personality as his given name with the silent "D."

Novak Djokovic finally feels the love on Centre Court. (AP)  
Novak Djokovic finally feels the love on Centre Court. (AP)  
Novak Djokovic had everything to be a champion but staying power and temperament. He could fist-pump with the best of them and complain with the worst. But when it came to the big matches, the Grand Slams, he couldn't beat the two champions in front of him, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal.

Until Sunday. Until the final at Wimbledon. Until he got there on the lawn at Centre Court and ran Nadal around the way Rafa had run others. Djokovic held his nerve and most of the time held his serve and beat Nadal 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 to take the men's singles title of the 145th Wimbledon.

No Djoking. Or, contrary to the comments of his critics, no choking.

He wins the most historic of tournaments one day and -- this was known as soon as he made it through his semifinal Friday -- becomes No. 1 in the world rankings the next day, Monday.

"Just an incredible feeling that I'll never forget," said Djokovic. "The best day of my tennis career. I will not stop even though I achieved the two biggest things in my life in three days."

He is 24, from Serbia, a country that, because of the bloody Balkan conflict of the late 1990s, the battle against Croatia and the human rights abuses, was ostracized by much of the West. But things have changed, and Djokovic in part is responsible.

On the day earlier this year the Serb military leader Ratko Mladic finally was arrested for war crimes, according to the Times of London, the deputy prosecutor of Serbia said, "We do not want to be remembered in the world for our war commanders, but by tennis players like Novak Djokovic."

As a boy, Djokovic was sent to a tennis academy in Germany for two years to develop. Later, he had to leave the courts in Belgrade and flee to shelters when NATO bombs fell on the city.

"Those were tough times," he recalled.

These are beautiful times.

Nadal, Wimbledon champion in 2008 and 2010 -- he was absent in 2009 because of leg injuries -- had won 20 straight matches at the All England Club. That streak was halted by Djokovic, who had a no less impressive streak if a different one, 41 straight victories from January until the semifinals of the French Open in June. Now it's 48 of 49.

Djokovic has beaten the 25-year-old Nadal five times in 2011, but the other four wins, at Indian Wells, Miami, Rome and Madrid, do not hold quite the significance of Wimbledon.

"When one player beat you five times is because today my game don't bother him a lot," said Nadal, the Spaniard, in his passable English. He had looked as bewildered by Djokovic as most people have looked against Nadal.

More on Wimbledon

"He's playing better at every level," said Nadal. "I only lose matches this year against him. When I was 100 percent to play, I lost against him five times. The rest of the year, I won almost every match. ... I didn't play well at the big moments. ... He played better than me. For that reason he is champion here."

Where, Djokovic said, since watching Wimbledon as a 4-year-old on television, he always wanted to be champion.

At first the family lived in the mountain community of Kopaonik, where his father, Srdjan, was a ski instructor and with his wife, Dijana, ran a restaurant and shop. Novak picked up a racquet, and his speed, agility and hand-eye coordination were apparent.

He won the Australian Open in 2008 and again this year, but he couldn't beat Nadal or Federer in the Grand Slams. Until Sunday, he was 0-5 against Nadal in matches at Wimbledon and the French, Australian and U.S. Opens.

"Sometimes it did feel a little frustrating," said Djokovic, "when you get to the final stages of a Grand Slam, meaning the last four, last eight, and you have to meet them. ... But you know, it's a process of learning, of developing and improving as a tennis player, as a person, and just finding the way to mentally overcome those pressures and expectations that you have."

Djokovic beat Nadal, a 10-time Grand Slam winner, at his own game, moving him from side to side, virtually sprinting to the net to pick up the half-volleys that seemingly were out of reach. He broke Rafa in the 10th game of the first set and then breezed in the second.

"The game is easy," sighed Nadal, who won the year's other major, the French Open.

"The game is not that difficult. He's in the best moment of his career. I am in one of the best moments of my career. Still not enough for him. ... He has a good backhand, very good forehand, good serve. His movements probably are some of the best in the world in this moment."

Also relishing the moment was the president of Serbia, Boris Tadic, in attendance to pay tribute to a man who has given the nation a new hero.

"You have to enjoy the moment," Djokovic said. "I mean winning (the first) two sets against the defending champion on the court (where) he hasn't lost for three years was incredible."

The Joker is dead serious.

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