Bud Collins

Djokovic gets it straight

By Bud Collins
Globe Staff / January 31, 2011

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MELBOURNE — Where’s Rafa? What happened to Roger? Am I in the wrong place? Aren’t Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer supposed to monopolize the major finals in tennis, leaving the rest of the mob out in the cold?

Sure, that’s been the overpowering pattern of No. 1 Nadal and No. 2 Federer. But as I scan Rod Laver Arena, jammed with 15,000 patrons last night for the Australian Open showdown, those two are nowhere in sight. This is only the second final in the last 23 majors that both Federer and Nadal are missing.

Instead, a couple of 23-year-old pals, who could be twins in the way they play the game, showed up in the rectangle to see if they might scramble the business-as-usual success of the Spaniard and the Swiss. A Serb, Novak Djokovic, and a Briton, Andy Murray, who prefers that you call him a Scotsman.

Scots are alleged to be tight, but Murray wasn’t tight enough and the title slipped away from him to Djokovic, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3. As the great ripe hope of title-starved Britain, Murray was losing his third major championship, the other two to Federer — the 2008 US and a year ago here.

As the dreaded Fred Perry jinx continues, the British press contingent on the Murray beat wonder whether Andy will ever conquer it. Perry was the most recent British winner of a major, the US title, and that was back in Winston Churchill’s day, 1936.

Churchill, who probably saw Perry play, would recommend blood, sweat, and tears for Murray. Not that he doesn’t work hard, but harder never hurt. The British tennis establishment has invested millions in Murray’s development. The Queen has sent him good-luck notes. Everybody wants him to succeed, and get that major, preferably Wimbledon, and more.

But he wasn’t going to bring down his buddy Djokovic, who held a 4-3 edge in their rivalry.

“We met when were 13 at a tennis camp and became good friends,’’ said Djokovic, winner of 19 pro titles to Murray’s 16. “Andy beat me badly the first time we played. I admire his game.’’

There is much to admire, but Djokovic was a Mercury clone with wings on his swift sneakers. They were playing out incredible points with big angles, driving each other off the court in double-digit rallies that had the crowd gasping. But it was usually Djokovic who made the last save. He was protecting his serve, losing only eight points in the first two sets.

“We had unbelievable points,’’ said Murray. Indeed. Running, slugging, seldom coming to the net, they fought a 15-minute second game to get warmed up, then were off to the races, Djokovic’s retrieving giving him the edge. When he won the first set, he had the taste, and took over on a seven-game run to 5-0 in the second.

Djokovic is hot-hot-hot. He won the Davis Cup for Serbia, knocked off Federer in straight sets in the Aussie semifinals, where Murray beat David Ferrer. Djokovic said, “Davis Cup was so important for my confidence, to do something for my country, not for me. We are trying to restore respect in our country, and I think the Davis Cup, being the world champions helped.’’

Is Djokovic the coming king? He looked it on the blue asphalt.

He says he has rid himself of a lot of confusion in his game. He had two coaches for a while, longtime Marian Vajda and for a bit American Todd Martin. It didn’t work.

“Todd is excellent,’’ he said, “but I was going two different ways. Marian will always be with me.’’

So the much desired Federer-Nadal final did not materialize. Roger went home with his psyche dented by Djokovic, who also defeated him (from two match points down) in the last US Open semis. Rafa is nursing a pulled, possibly torn left hamstring that knocked him out against Ferrer. It’s too soon to select assisted-living places for them, but the serfs are getting restless.

Loudest screamers were the Djokovic crowd. After the triumphant handshake he began to disrobe, pitching two rackets, his shoes, shirt, and a towel into the stands. He carefully removed his orthotics before ditching the shoes.

“They’re the secret to my speed and footwork,’’ he said.

The Scotsman will have to wait until the French Open to shoot for that elusive major. His countryman Robert Burns might advise: “For auld lang syne/We’ll take a cup of kindness yet/But it may not be a championship cup.’’