A Serb who could have been a Brit

NOVAK DJOKOVIC... his second Slam and eyeing Federer's number two spot in the rankings.-AP

Novak Djokovic's racquet upgrade has started to pay dividends, and the 2000 ATP points garnered in Melbourne has narrowed the gap between him and the second-ranked Roger Federer. With regard to Kim Clijsters, she has won three of the three major finals in her second coming, as compared to one of the five in her first essay. Over to Kunal Diwan.

The fabric is changing again. The ripples and clefts are rearranging, reforming into a new whole of separate parts, of which although some appear more equal than the rest, they display not the disparity in magnitude of the few years past. It is too soon to call and nobody is going to stick their neck out and wail out an elegy, but rumour has it that the days of the Hegemony are over.

Since Marat Safin's Australian Open win in 2005, just three times has the Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer enterprise loosened its hold on a Grand Slam trophy; twice the seat of the unlikely has been down under and both times the man responsible Novak Djokovic. The Serbian's latest win at the Rod Laver arena releases him unequivocally from a potential inclusion in the one-Slam wonder list, which contains familiar names of unrequited talent, from Roscoe Tanner and Pat Cash to the Michaels, Chang and Stich.

Djokovic's racquet upgrade has started to pay dividends, and the 2000 ATP points garnered in Melbourne has narrowed the gap between him and the second-ranked Federer. After sitting pretty at number three for an eternity, can the 23-year-old Serbian lead the charge against the Swiss and the Spaniard? How much can one read in his emphatic ride to a second career major title?

Although the unbelievable dominance of Federer and Nadal across surfaces is unlikely to be matched, Djokovic has shown signs that he now poses a serious threat to Federer at No. 2. The head-to-head is unflattering (13-7 to the Basle native, 4-3 in majors), but Djokovic has beaten Federer the last two times they met in tournaments that matter, each time on a hard court — the maestro's favourite playing arena.

Nadal is an entirely different proposition; someone who seems infallible only to the whims of his bodily constituents. His head-to-head against Djokovic is a staggering 15-7, and not once has the Majorcan lost to the Serb in four Grand Slam meetings. Clay or PlayPave, Nadal has got everybody's number — when his body is willing, that is.

“It's going to be very hard because the main rivals for that spot, next to Murray and (Robin) Soderling, are Federer and Nadal, the two best players in the world who are winning most of the grand slams. So if I want to become the best player in the world, I will have to win more majors. I feel that I have a good game for all the surfaces. I have proven that in the past,” Djokovic analysed his chances.

Semifinals in Paris and Wimbledon indicate that the man can compete everywhere, but challenges lie elsewhere too, in the form of big-serving giants Juan Martin del Potro and Tomas Berdych, and rising stars Victor Troicki and Sergei Stakhovsky, all of whom are entirely comfortable slamming the opponent on hard courts. And then there is the perpetually unfulfilling Murray.

Djokovic and Murray, hitting partners, text message exchangers, mutual Twitter followers, go back a long way, to their junior days where they shared a common struggle up the ranks. But this sense of kinship was nowhere in sight in their latest meeting when Djokovic was disembowelling Murray's aspirations of becoming Britain's first major winner in 75 years.

The Serbian delayed indefinitely an island's alleged date with destiny, and the title was won after a three hour-20-minute shellacking of the Scotsman. Murray bottled the tears this time as Djokovic celebrated with a partial strip-act — everything but the shorts, socks and shoulder tape went into the crowd. This was their maiden Grand Slam final meeting and on evidence of the first major of the year, more of the same is expected.

So, the Rafa Slam didn't happen. Neither did Nadal's exit pave the path with roses for Federer. If it required the connivance of David Ferrer and a tautened hamstring to send off the Spaniard, it took Djokovic's supreme lateral movement and the abeyance of Federer's backhand to account for the Swiss. The previous time that neither Federer nor Nadal made it into a major final — the occasion of Djokovic's first triumph — was also in Melbourne, in 2008.

“Some health issues and some issues in my private life,” was how Djokovic had explained his relatively quiet first half of 2010. But a five-set U.S. Open semifinal win during which he saved two match-points against Federer, followed by a stirring Davis Cup triumph against France saw him end on a high. A minor inclination of the stars and that Davis Cup victory may well have been Great Britain's. In 2006, Djokovic was asked to apply for a British residency and lured with a financial bait. He did not oblige and it is not known if the Scotsman's “big hair” and thick accent put Djokovic off bunking with him.

As for Murray, he played the perfect tournament until talk of the British jinx reached a crescendo during the second weekend, finally melting the Hibs-daft tennis player in the heat of expectation. On the way to the final, Murray leapt across hazards in the form of Jurgen Melzer and Alexandr Dolgopolov, before bombing out Ferrer in the semifinal. But in the final, he was lustreless, uneven, and gone in the head, failing to win a set across three major finals.

On the women's side, parenthood, which was being proclaimed a minor factor in Federer's downgrading — the major ones being mechanical, age-induced — turned out to be the trump card in Kim Clijsters' second successive Grand Slam win. And it wasn't quite a Medusa-like stare or mental ambiguity that rung in the riches. As Clijsters would herself admit, $2.2 million does seem like a bushel for a few icy glances or personality shifts. That Aussie Kim finally justified her nickname with a first title down under had little to do with Oracene Williams' twitter slants of the Belgian being “dubious” and “with a Madusa Scare” (sic). Supermom's success drew from elsewhere.

“When I was younger, it kind of overwhelmed me a little bit. Now that I'm a little bit older, I still get nervous but I'm able to very quickly switch it off when I step out on court,” said the 27-year-old.

Putting things in perspective; that's what it's all about: banishing that missed volley on break-point from the mind once the point is over. What's a mishit down-the-line before a howling child anyway, or a faultily strung racquet before a measles-shot appointment?

It's this new-found balance that has helped Clijsters, now possessed of four Grand Slams (three U.S. and one Australian), turn around a dismal record in major finals. As the sisters Williams fought injury, amotivation and distraction, Clijsters has emerged the hard court form horse, consistently, tournament after tournament, since her return from a 27-month lay-off following childbirth in 2007. She has won three of the three major finals in her second coming, as compared to one of the five in her first essay. And after attaining some measure of statistical salvation, she has been candidness personified.

“When it kind of really mattered to the tennis world, that was where I always came up a little bit short, but now it's better.” she said.