Tennis

Playing in Miami Open ‘extra special’ for Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic celebrates after winning with the Sony Ericsson Open (now Miami Open) with a victory over Guillermo Canas on April 1, 2007 at the Tennis Center of Crandon Park on Key Biscayne.
Novak Djokovic celebrates after winning with the Sony Ericsson Open (now Miami Open) with a victory over Guillermo Canas on April 1, 2007 at the Tennis Center of Crandon Park on Key Biscayne. Miami Herald Staff

There were signs that April Fools’ Day of 2007 in Key Biscayne that Novak Djokovic, the charismatic 19-year-old in the bright yellow shirt, was destined to become a shining star on the men’s tennis tour.

He had just won the Sony Ericsson Open, knocking off Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinal and Guillermo Canas in the final. He didn’t drop a set the entire tournament — the first men’s champion to do that since Ivan Lendl in 1989. And, at 19, he became the youngest winner in the tournament’s 23-year history.

He was ranked No. 10 at the time, known mostly for his spot-on impersonations of fellow players. His personality showed as he celebrated his first major victory. He climbed into the stands to hug everyone he knew and then ripped off his shirt and threw it to the crowd. Then his white cap. Then his wristbands and his racket, and he even pretended he was going to toss his sneakers.

The fans went wild.

“Tennis has a new star today,” tournament chairman Butch Buchholz declared at the trophy ceremony. “He’s going to be around.”

Nine years later, Djokovic is back on those tournament grounds as the No. 1 player in the world, an 11-time Grand Slam champion and eight-time Grand Slam runner-up, and five-time champion of this event. He has spent the past 191 weeks atop the world rankings and has won $97,171,248 in prize money.

He is considered one of the greatest players of all time, and his 2015 season is, arguably, the best men’s season of all time. Last year he won three of the four Grand Slam titles — Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open — and was a finalist at the French Open. He won a record six Masters events and racked up an 82-6 record.

Djokovic went 31-5 against Top-10 players and made the final in 15 of the 16 tournaments he played.

Common sense says he won’t be able to repeat those numbers, but so far this year he is 22-1 and has won three of four tournaments he entered, including the Australian Open.

As he prepares to play his opening match at the Miami Open on Friday night, Djokovic got nostalgic.

“[Key Biscayne in 2007] was the biggest tournament I had won in that stage of my career, biggest one in my life,” he said in a phone interview with the Miami Herald. “And that opened a lot of doors for me. Most importantly, it gave me a lot of self-belief and confidence for the rest of my career. I won against Nadal, who was one of the best in the world, and I won in best-of-5 against Canas in the final. It was a dream come true to win in such a big event.

“Because of that memory, every time I go back to Miami I relive these moments. That’s why it’s extra special for me to go back and play in Miami.”

ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe says he would be “surprised” if Djokovic can maintain last year’s level week in and week out.

“I’d be surprised if that happens, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if he wins a couple more majors this year,” McEnroe said. “Because he’s going to be the favorite basically every match he plays in every tournament, but certainly at the majors, as well.”

Chris Evert agreed.

“I think the older he gets and the more he’s aware of his place in history, I think he might be focusing a little bit more on the Grand Slams,” she said. “Not that he would take these tournaments lightly, but I just think your priorities change and you want to do everything you can to be 100 percent for the Grand Slams.

“So that might mean that you’re not 100 percent for a lot of the tournaments during the year. He had such a picture perfect year last year. It’s hard to expect that he’s going to do it again. I mean, he is human.”

As Djokovic reflected on the past decade, he said he is completely different on and off the court.

“I became a father, got married, and am very fortunate to be the best player in the world and to win many titles in my 10-year career,” he said. “It’s been a great trajectory and roller-coaster ride, a great adventure with many defining moments in my life and career that have happened for a reason and that have defined me as a person, strengthened my character and have been a great confidence boost to get me to where I am at the moment.”

He said marrying and becoming a father have given him the “balance and peace” he needed.

“Becoming a father is the best thing that has ever happened to me both professional and private life,” he said. “I never knew I had this kind of dimension of love and emotion inside of me. Unconditional love. I’m very blessed and grateful, together with my wife, to experience that.

“He’s a thrill to watch every single day. He’s now 16 months old. He’s growing up and to follow that process the very beginning, the first day he comes into this world and now 16 months later to what he has become, it’s truly a blessing. I don’t take it for granted. I think it has brought a lot more energy and excitement to my life and a very deep sense of belonging. Everything makes sense at the moment. I feel a great fulfillment and joy, and that obviously reflects on my tennis.”

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