Djoker's Coach


Neil Harman, Tennis Correspondent, in Melbourne :

Novak Djokovic won the first ATP tournament he contested immediately after
employing a coach he had been assured was the proverbial iron fist in a
velvet glove; so did Andy Murray. In Djokovic's case, the transformation
started in Amersfoort in the Netherlands in July 2006; for Murray, the hope
is that the fuse was lit three weeks ago in Doha, Qatar.

If the British No1 can draw consolation from his first-round defeat in the
Australian Open, it is that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, his French conqueror,
reached the final and that Djokovic, his friend from junior days, delivered
exhilaratingly on his promise these past two weeks in partnership with
Marián Vajda, a relatively obscure Slovakian coach, whose world ranking as a
player did not exceed No34 in 1987, when the depth in the men's game was not
as pronounced as it is today.

True, the new Australian Open champion was not replacing a coach, and
character, of Brad Gilbert's repute when Vajda came on board 18 months ago.
The Serb was searching for the compatibility that would allow him to spread
his wings and fly. You can tell from their practice sessions that they get
along swimmingly. When the world No3 was the star of the show at the annual
players' party in Monte Carlo last April - his impersonations of fellow
players are a particular speciality - Vajda was one of the support acts, as
a hoola-hoola girl in a routine of belly dancing and belly laughs.

Before anyone suggests that Miles Maclagan, Murray's new coach, should start
dressing up in women's clothes, it is significant that the Scot has chosen
someone who can bring a smile to his face - and did he not need that two
weeks ago? Relaxation off the court can inspire success on it; Djokovic
followed up his semi-final appearances at last year's French Open and
Wimbledon by reaching the US Open final and, on Sunday evening here, the
culmination (although not the end of the story) came with a major
championship victory.

"For me, Marián is so important," the champion said yesterday. "I wanted
somebody who could be the coach but also a great friend. We hit it off
straight away. I started to play really well, won some events and you could
not imagine what it was like to share the moment I had last night. It was a
new sensation for him, too. So special. He was a good, solid player, he
knows the game, he knows me, it works." That's Maclagan to a tee.

Two security men apart, there were no trappings of a champion yesterday
afternoon in Djokovic's hotel foyer. His younger brothers, Marko and
Djordje, were playing keepy-uppy with a tennis ball between making gestures
behind Novak's back, and his mother, Dijana, was settling the bill for a
longer stay than the family had expected.

"We all have fun with each other. They [his siblings] don't really care if I
am a winner, to them I am just a big brother," Djokovic said. "They don't
have to pretend with me, like other people. They help me to deal with the
pressure by making my days as normal as possible."

Little will be quite so normal again for the 20-year-old from Belgrade, who
first caught British attention at a Davis Cup tie in Glasgow two years ago,
when he persuaded his Serbia team-mates to turn up for their press
conference wearing Scotland football shirts. Talk about a charm offensive.

Yes, there is an abrasive nature to his character. His game thrives on
tension, because his playing style is not one that delivers easy points; the
pronounced and punishing stretches, the back-court scrambles and the
combative attitude mean that Djokovic seems permanently about to erupt.

"I get involved, I cannot help myself," he said. "I expend a lot of energy
on the court, but that's just the way I am. Some people are the other way
around, but I have to deal with match situations in my way. It will always
be like that."

One pronounced side-effect of his nature is his penchant for ball bouncing
in his service preparation - "My worst habit," he said. "I don't know how
many times I do it and sometimes I don't want to do it at all," he said. "I
have a sore back from all that bouncing, it takes up so much time. I know it
upsets my opponents, but it is not a trick. They are angry, but what can I
do? Especially when I am nervous, it is as though I cannot control it."

Victory in Australia - and especially his semi-final success over Roger
Federer, the world No1 - has propelled Djokovic into the mix for the top
spot along with Rafael Nadal and, in terms of ranking points, the three of
them are the equivalent of four Masters Series victories ahead of Nikolay
Davydenko, who is the world No4. Murray, who has dropped to No12 this week,
is playing catch-up.

"Andy has enough quality to be challenging, believe me," Djokovic said. "I
know how it can affect you mentally when the pressure is on the
breakthrough, and Andy has that more than most people. I really believe if
he avoids injury he will be up there.

"I have a lot of ranking points to defend in the American hard-court season
[Djokovic won the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, Florida, two weeks after
losing in the final to Nadal in Indian Wells, California], but now I am a
grand-slam champion and it does not feel so bad. I am relieved, I am
confident. I believe I can be the best in the world. I look at the rest of
the year with a real motivation.

"And Wimbledon? My first memory of tennis was watching Pete Sampras lift the
trophy. I think I was 6. I felt I should have been in the finals last year,
but I was hurt. I have always imagined myself as Sampras.

"To be Australian Open champion is wonderful; to win Wimbledon, that would
be amazing."