The Defiant One.

Novak Djokovic is becoming more than just the hottest tennis player on the planet in the world right now. He’s becoming the biggest story in sports too. Sports loves streaks, no matter the person, the team or the sport and 37-0 is a trend that no sports journalist or fan can deny, even if they’ve never watched a tennis match before. Djokovic, who’s been called everything from a hypochondriac, a headcase and a fluke in his career, has gone from dismantling Andy Murray in the Australian Open final this past January to dominating (so far) Rafael Nadal on clay this season, has now qualified for the ATP World Tour Finals and is only a few wins away from being No. 1. Not bad for someone 12 months ago who many thought was on his way to becoming an “also-ran” for the rest of his career.

If you want to credit Djokovic’s new diet, new serve, new fitness, whatever, I believe a key part to “Nole” dominating tennis so far is his defiant spirit. Early in his career, Djokovic’s intense will to win was described as “militant”; perhaps an unfair description based on his country’s recent past. Djokovic tried to downplay that side of his personality with a more jovial, “joker” image that, though it endeared him to fans, made me wonder if he would just end up being the “class clown” of the tour rather than a feared opponent. Djokovic, still a natural showman, has left the jokes and impressions for his exhibitions and is now all business on court, something that doesn’t get as much press as it should.

The thing that I like about Djokovic’s 2011 run more than anything is the number of times he’s been expected to fold in a match, as if the script were already written to make way for a more interesting and compelling ending, not just for the fans, but for the powers that be who control the sport. Djokovic’s fight really came back into focus during his semifinal battle against Roger Federer at the U.S. Open last summer when Djokovic was not only expected to bow his head to the “Swiss Maestro”, but almost demanded to by a television network that really, really hoped to air the potential “dream final” between Federer and Rafael Nadal. Instead, it was Djokovic after winning five long sets who raised his arms, not only in triumph, but also in a stance of “Hold on now, people. I deserve to be here just as much as anyone.”

Djokovic displayed that defiance once again in Rome last week after Murray, who broke Djokovic in their semifinal for a 4-3 lead in the final set that many thought would be the beginning of the end to Djokovic’s streak. Instead it was the Serb, looking exhausted, who summoned a new reserve to break Murray back in the next game and eventually force a final set tiebreak that Djokovic won. But even after that tremendous win, many expected Nadal to dominate Djokovic in the Rome final, because there was no way, no way, that Djokovic mentally or physically could have anything left for the final. Right?

But Djokovic proved everyone wrong again, facing Nadal in another near-classic final that saw the “king of Clay” showing frustration and concern at not being able to find a way past Djokovic’s defense and shotmaking. What impressed me again about Djokovic was at the very end of the match when he was up 6-4, 5-4 and ominous clouds threatened another rain delay similar to the one that postponed the order of play for three hours earlier in the day, Djokovic’s will to close out the match right there, no matter what, thunderclouds be dammed, manifested again.

And that’s something no dietician can teach you.

Djokovic’s belief that he can beat anyone, anywhere, has been part of his personality and ability for a long time now, but he’s only been able to truly manifest it to its highest potential after taking care of all the other issues with his game – diet, fitness, serve, etc. If Djokovic can keep defying expectations, especially those that still tip Nadal as the favorite for Paris, will be the biggest story throughout the fortnight in Paris. And though his naysayers search for answers on how last year’s “also-ran” is now the man to beat (if you can), all I can tell them is to look into Djokovic’s eyes as he chases down a ball. Some say he appears “mad”, “possessed” or even “deranged”, but it’s actually none of that. It’s just the look of man who’s earned the right to be called “world’s best” now, no matter what the rankings are. And it’s a title that Djokovic may not relinquish anytime soon.

Defy him if you can.

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