Friday, December 3, 2010

Djokovic and Monfils: Men on a Mission

With huge wins in Belgrade on Friday, Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils set the table for a monumental finish to the weekend.

It may be just tennis in December for the rest of the world, but for France and Serbia it is so much more. For Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils, the charismatic leaders of their Davis Cup squads, it feels like each is at a very crucial point in their development as a tennis player.

For Djokovic, the 2008 Australian Open champion who has developed a reputation as an enigmatic yet superbly talented player -- one who stands perpetually one rung below where we think he should be on the ladder of tennis success -- his impassioned Davis Cup season just may be a new high water mark in his already fantastic tennis career. After struggling with mysterious heat-inflicted maladies and coming up short against the top two players in the world more often than not, Djokovic has engineered a massive turnaround in fate over the back half of 2010.

Could this be the emergence of the Djokovic that we all expected when he stormed the upper tier of tennis in 2007 and 2008? It certainly appears that way. While his immense will to prove himself provided the impetus for his original climb to the No. 3 spot in the ATP rankings, now it appears that another immensity is guiding Djokovic's efforts: His love of country.

Djokovic has gone 6-0 in Davis Cup singles in 2010, and it's clear that he relishes being depended upon to provide massive wins for a Serbian squad that is hell bent on winning its first Davis Cup title in the same year that it won its first World Group match.

While it would be a huge mistake to discount the contributions of the other Serbian players -- Janko Tipsarevic, Viktor Troicki, and Nenad Zimonjic -- it was once again made clear on Friday that Djokovic will have to be the one to pilot the Serbs to victory.

During his straight set win over Gilles Simon, Djokovic was the epitome of a world class player -- calm, authoritative, remarkably skilled, and clutch -- today.

And make no mistake about it, his task of revitalizing his squad, and the shocked partisan crowd who bore witness to Janko Tipsarevic's shellacking, was no small feat.

Djokovic played it so cool in the first set, all the time displaying a look of focus and calm while he and Simon walked a virtual tightrope deadlocked for the first six games of the match. One mistake at this point and the air might have fully left the building, but Djokovic stayed patient, assessing his foe and choosing the perfect moment to strike.

He closed the set with two breaks of serve in three straight games and the rest of the day was saved for Serbia.

Djokovic's next singles opponent has also done his country proud in 2010. Much maligned for his disappointing Davis Cup loss last September to Thiemo De Bakker, Gael Monfils had a lot to prove to his captain, Guy Forget. Many thought it was a lost cause, assuming that the young flamboyant Frenchman was too self-centered to truly embrace the art of playing for the flag.

Man were they wrong.

Monfils' perfect record in Davis Cup play in 2010 has been the biggest reason that the French are now seeking their 10th Davis Cup title, and their first since 2001. True, Michael Llodra has been a small miracle to the French team, and yes, the depth of the French is second to perhaps only Spain, but does anybody in their right mind think that the French could have gone this far without Monfils coming of age?

Monfils' wins over Kolschreiber, Ferrer, and Nalbandian set the tone in each of France's last three wins, and Friday's romp over Janko Tipsarevic on enemy turf,erased many doubts that Monfils wouldn't be the same player with 16,000 rowdy Serbs hooting and hollering for the other guy.

While Djokovic's ascent in the back half of 2010 was more noteworthy than Monfils, the two players both enjoyed a better-than-expected run in New York, and followed that up immediately with a monumental Davis Cup semifinal victory two weeks later. They are completely different personalities, each captivating in their own way, but they do share a similar bond now.

Both knows what it is like to play for a cause, and to thrive under that pressure. No matter what comes of the next two days in Belgrade, both will be steps ahead in their maturation process when all is said and done.

It's only fitting that Monfils and Djokovic will duke it out on Sunday in a live rubber that will be perhaps the biggest match in each player's career.

Only then will we see which player has come the farthest.


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