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He’s in fashion, moving forward

Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Audacious, thy name is Novak Djokovic.

It’s a difficult call, determining the most intrepid moment of Djokovic’s great summer adventure this month in Montreal, an important tuneup for the U.S. Open, which starts here today.

The nominees:

1) Two catwalk appearances at the ATP Tour’s fashion show. There was Djokovic’s apparent John Travolta tribute, “Saturday Night Fever” era, as he was clad in white pants and a chest-baring shirt. This preceded a surprising appearance in only his underwear, answering the pressing question: boxers or briefs?

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2) Back-to-back-to-back victories over none other than Andy Roddick, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the final three rounds at Montreal. Those three hold a combined 14 Grand Slam singles titles, with Federer claiming 11.

Of course, the call is in the eye of the beholder. But for the purpose of this U.S. Open, court sense may prevail over fashion sense in the larger scheme of things.

Because it appears there could be a 20-year-old Serbian interloper in the compelling Federer-Nadal rivalry. This, after the tennis world long waited in vain for a Roddick or Lleyton Hewitt revival, or the arrival of an Andy Murray or Richard Gasquet.

The three-way race has injected intrigue into the final Grand Slam event of the season. Especially since momentum has been a scarce commodity on the women’s side since Wimbledon. Even the women winning tournaments this summer have been riddled with injuries (Maria Sharapova, Justine Henin) and the women not winning events have been just as fragile (Venus and Serena Williams).

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Now, the spotlight is firmly fixed on the men, the question being whether the top-ranked Federer and No. 3 Nadal can bring their rivalry to New York for the first time. Or if it will become a rivalry interrupted, at the hands of Djokovic.

“Again, the thing is that they cannot stay forever in the first two places,” Djokovic said during an interview in Montreal

His statement came at the end of an answer to a question about whether the Federer-Nadal rivalry was good for tennis.

“It depends from which side you’re looking,” said Djokovic, who will play Mario Ancic in the first round here. “For the tournament, for the crowd, it’s good to see the first two players in the finals -- the biggest rivalry in men’s tennis.

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“Now, on the other hand, it might not be good for the sport because people don’t get to see too much the other players. A lot of people don’t know who the other top 10, top 20 players are because they don’t get many chances to see those guys.”

By Montreal’s conclusion, Djokovic had established himself as a contender in New York. It was the first time someone had defeated the top three players in the world at the same event since Boris Becker did so in 1994.

Call it the watershed moment of a breakthrough year. In 2007, Djokovic reached the semifinals at the French Open and Wimbledon, and earlier made the final at Indian Wells and won at Miami. He’s ranked No. 3, a career best.

“I think the new generation now have announced themselves since a year basically,” said Federer, who is aiming for his fourth straight U.S. Open title and could play Roddick in the quarterfinals. “One year ago, they were still very young, not just young. They’re all very good.

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“You could definitely tell one of them was going to make the breakthrough soon. It was Djokovic that did it first, even though it looked like Murray was going to do it ahead of him.”

Djokovic, so far, seems to hold the mental edge over the other youngsters. He has the moxie to think he can take on the likes of Federer and Nadal, saying: “For them, you’ve got to have something special. As you say, to be fearless, believe in yourself.”

For all the anticipation of a Nadal-Federer final here -- on the heels of their epic Wimbledon final won by Federer -- Nadal has yet to reach the semifinals in four trips to New York. Nadal, in the same half of the draw as Djokovic, often seems tired by this time of the season, and he has been dealing with nagging injuries.

Now there’s the specter of a confident Djokovic. Nadal was asked in Montreal about Djokovic’s plan to be the next No. 1.

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“Oh, I hope not soon,” Nadal said, laughing.

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U.S. OPEN

When: Begins today; women’s final Sept. 8, men’s final Sept. 9.

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Where: USTA National Tennis Center, Flushing Meadows, N.Y.

Defending champions:

Men: Roger Federer;

women: Maria Sharapova.

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TV: USA Network.

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lisa.dillman@latimes.com


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