Djokovic’s comedy may be merely the appetizer
NEW YORK -- Who knew, on the eve of the men’s U.S. Open tennis semifinals, that there would be a way to squeeze into Roger Federer’s spotlight? Who knew it could be done with off-court shenanigans?
Today, when Federer plays No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko of Russia and No. 3 Novak Djokovic of Serbia plays No. 15 David Ferrer of Spain, there will be no question who is No. 1.
The maestro from Switzerland, who conducts an orchestra of shots while others play single instruments, will be standing at the podium with a baton. His achievements up to now are well known, including being No. 1 in the world 188 consecutive weeks, more than anybody else. Ever.
But if tennis is a sport of achievement, it is also a sport that thrives on personality. Which is what the world still watching in the late hours of Thursday night discovered in Djokovic, the Serbian Stand-Up. Win or lose, a booking on Leno is forthcoming.
Djokovic had just muscled his way past venerable Spaniard Carlos Moya, a former No. 1 and French champion who, at 31, was grasping for one final straw before the rocking chair.
When Djokovic was in trouble in the second-set tiebreaker, serving with Moya at set point, he missed his first serve and then disdained the safe route and hit a second 118 mph for an ace.
“If you want a positive outcome,” he said, “you have to take a risk.”
Half an hour later, he was finished with Moya and summoned back onto the court for the usually predictable TV chitchat. The questions are soft, the purpose warm and fuzzy and the result seldom compelling journalistically. But this time, TV took a chance, and we shall all be eternally grateful.
Djokovic, known on the tour for his fast rise and great sense of humor -- but not yet known among U.S. fans who are still struggling to pronounce his name -- was asked to do one of his player impersonations.
Again, who knew?
Suddenly, you had a 20-year-old -- chitchatting in a language not his, moments after reaching only his third-ever Grand Slam semifinal after playing for 2 hours 18 minutes -- being asked to do impromptu stand-up in front of more than 23,000 people and several million TV viewers.
What did Djokovic do? He asked which player they wanted. And what ensued will go down as one of the funnier moments in the history of this tournament.
Maria Sharapova, he was told.
He bent over, rolled his socks down and pulled his shorts way up, skipped behind the baseline, had a little conversation with the racket, turned and went to the service line, stuck his bottom out a bit, brushed a strain of hair out of his eyes and made a service toss that went about 20 feet in the air.
The crowd howled. A star had been born.
TV took another chance, asked Djokovic to do Rafael Nadal. He pulled his socks back up and the shorts way down. Then he squatted, leaped in the air, sprinted to the service line, got in the serving position, tugged at his underwear, and did a Nadal serve.
The crowd rocked again, and Djokovic’s new image rolled.
In the crowd was soprano Natalie Dessay, who is in rehearsal for the much-anticipated opera “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Metropolitan Opera House.
A box of eight people for that goes for $100,000.
Dessay was smitten with this tennis character, invited him to a rehearsal Friday, and Djokovic went. He even got onstage and sang a few bars.
Dessay told the Associated Press that she likes Djokovic because he’s “young and fresh,” but added “he has a bad voice.”
Djokovic said he does his impressions around the locker room, that other players enjoy it and see it as fun. He said he never did it before he became a high-ranked player.
“I was a mouse,” he said.
He said he gets it back sometimes, especially from Andy Roddick, who mimics the high number of ball bounces Djokovic goes through before serving.
Andy “was trying to imitate me because he was annoyed by me imitating him,” Djokovic said.
Djokovic is bright, clever, always smiling, always cooperative. You interview him once, he remembers you forever. Between him and his countrywoman, Jelena Jankovic, they have cornered the market on personality at this year’s Open.
In the minds of most, Davydenko and Ferrer are afterthoughts, even though they are both great players and dangerous threats, especially Ferrer against Djokovic.
Davydenko has never made it to a Grand Slam final and has lost all nine of his matches with Federer.
Djokovic actually trails the head-to-heads with Ferrer, having lost on clay in 2004, winning this year on the hard courts at Indian Wells and losing at Monte Carlo on clay.
But, even though this is Djokovic’s first U.S. Open semifinal, it is also his third major semifinal in a row. He has a 57-13 record this season and even has a victory over Federer.
That victory put Djokovic’s name on the marquee. It happened in Montreal three weeks ago when he beat No. 3 Roddick, No. 2 Nadal and, in the final, No. 1 Federer, to win the Rogers Cup.
Clearly, Djokovic has a game as well as a comedy act. If he gets to the final against Federer, it will be much more than the Court King versus the Court Jester.
But there won’t ever be a Federer impersonation.
“The untouchable one, Roger,” Djokovic said. “He’s too perfect for my style. I cannot [do him]. Plus I don’t have long hair.
“I hope he doesn’t hear this.”
He will, which means for Djokovic, there is only one way to get a last laugh. Win the title.
Bill Dwyre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.