Novak Djokovic Nears John McEnroe Record

Originally published on June 2, 2011 7:05 am
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There's been one very dominant player in men's tennis lately and for a change his name is not Roger or Rafa. It's the Serbian, Novak Djokovic, who's been king of the court, winning all 41 of his matches this year. Djokovic is set to play Roger Federer tomorrow in the French Open semifinals. If he wins, he'll tie the record John McEnroe set for most wins to begin a season. He would also take tennis's number one ranking, replacing Rafael Nadal at the top.

Well, Jon Wertheim covers tennis for Sports Illustrated. And Jon, tell us just how good is Djokovic this year?

Mr. JON WERTHEIM (Sports Illustrated): He's exceptionally good. I mean, sometimes we see these streaks where empirically it doesn't necessarily reflect quality. But here in this case, I mean he's playing at just this phenomenally high level, he's beating all the best players, he's doing it on different continents, on different surfaces.

This is really - I mean it's exactly what you said - we had this sort of embarrassment of riches where we had for five years Nadal and Federer, two of the greatest of all time, then here comes this third-party candidate who's probably putting together the best six months streak that we've ever seen.

KELLY: Well, and what's going on? Are Nadal and Federer getting worse or has Djokovic just gotten really, really good?

Mr. WERTHEIM: Yeah, I think it's a combination. I mean, Djokovic was always number three, banging on the door, and when is he going to really infiltrate this Federer-Nadal rivalry. And he's done so this year. He's upgraded his fitness. I think some of this - you're right - owes to the decline of Federer, who's now in his late 20s - old in tennis - and not coincidentally the father of twins.

The real surprise is just the ease with which Djokovic has beaten Nadal four times running now. And I think that's really been the story - on clay no less, in Spain at one point. I mean that's really what I think has given his streak so much heft, is that he's beaten Nadal on Nadal's preferred surface.

KELLY: You mentioned his fitness regime. I understand he's on a gluten-free diet.

Mr. WERTHEIM: It's been a very bad year for gluten in tennis. All the players are going to want to do this now. But you know, it's funny because a year ago if we had this conversation, people would say, oh, Djokovic, very talented player but we question his stamina. And now the stamina's really one of the strengths of his game. And he said, look, I've cut these glutens from my diet and it's made all the difference in the world.

And you know, some people are having a - if you'll pardon the pun - a hard time swallowing that explanation, but the proof is in the gluten-free pudding. I mean at some level he's really shown it on the court, that he's had much better lasting power than he used to have. And it's hard especially in tennis, 'cause you go to these players' lounges and the only thing they have to eat half the time is pasta and carbs. So you know, I'm not sure how easy it is to be gluten-free, but he really says, look, that's been the key to my successes here.

KELLY: Well, tell us a bit more about him. I mean, what's he like off the court?

Mr. WERTHEIM: He's great. You know, this is really, I was thinking this is really the shame of tennis that it's become so global. If this guy were from Charlotte, North Carolina or from Tucson, we'd love this guy. He'd be this A-list celebrity. I mean he's this handsome kid, he's very outgoing, he likes to have fun. I mean, he's anything but the sort of boring tennis player that I've seen him portrayed as being.

He's very expressive. He's Serbian and is very proud of his country. And Federer and Nadal were just personable and unobjectionable as well. And this guy has a much different personality but also is quite likeable.

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KELLY: That's Sports Illustrated senior writer John Wertheim talking about Novak Djokovic, who will play Roger Federer in tomorrow's French Open semifinal. Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal face off in the other men's semifinal. In action today in the women's semifinals: Li Na just defeated Maria Sharapova, 6-4, 7-5. Li becomes the first player from China to reach a French Open final. Meanwhile, France's Marion Bartoli is facing Italian Francesca Schiavone in the other semifinal underway right now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.