Djokovic revels in return to the roots of his Grand design

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The Independent Online

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago Novak Djokovic came here as the bright young thing of men's tennis, fresh from his semi-final appearances at the French Open and Wimbledon and his Masters Series titles at Miami and Montreal. As this year's US Open got under way yesterday the 21-year-old Serb was being talked of as one of the major contenders for the New York crown, a player who knows what it takes to win a Grand Slam title.

Last year's US Open proved a turning point as Djokovic reached his first major final. His run ended in a straight-sets defeat to Roger Federer, but the scoreline did not tell the full story. Djokovic failed to take five set points in the first set and for long periods matched the Swiss blow for blow. Four months later he proved he had indeed arrived as a big-occasion player by winning the Australian Open. At this year's French Open he would have overtaken Rafael Nadal as world No 2 if he had won their semi-final.

Although an early exit to Marat Safin at Wimbledon brought a temporary halt to his progress, in recent weeks Djokovic has picked up where he had left off on his favoured hard courts. He reached the quarter-finals and final of the Masters Series events in Toronto and Cincinnati, losing to Andy Murray on both occasions, and made the semi-finals of the Olympic tournament. Nadal got the better of him over three sets in Beijing, but Djokovic went on to take the bronze medal by beating James Blake.

If the draw here has plenty of potential pitfalls, Djokovic looks more than capable of handling them. In the first round he faces a rejuvenated Arnaud Clement, who reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. His quarter of the draw also includes Andy Roddick, who skipped the Olympics to concentrate on his home Grand Slam event, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the Australian Open finalist, Marin Cilic, who claimed his first ATP title when he won at New Haven on Saturday, and Safin.

Djokovic is seeded to meet Federer in the semi-finals. Nadal, who was playing his first-round match here last night against Germany's Bjorn Phau, is in the other half of the draw.

"It feels great to be back in the tournament where I did really well last year," Djokovic said. "I was really close to the title and I had some exhausting matches, but it was after this tournament that I began to feel really confident in myself. I started having more belief that I could win a Grand Slam title, which I did this year.

"Now things are quite different. As a Grand Slam winner, you have the motivation to win even more titles. I think this surface and the balls and all the conditions here in New York are suitable to my style of game and my personality. I feel well physically and I hope I can go far.

"I like the entertainment here, the show. I think Americans really know how to do it and it's really interesting for the fans as well. It's great for the players to play in the biggest stadium in our sport.

"Last year I played a couple of matches at prime time and it was one of the best feelings to step on the court and see 23,000 people stand up and applaud you. They appreciate what you're doing and they really enjoy it."

If Djokovic has a self-confidence that borders on arrogance, it is clearly a character trait that has not hindered his progress. Indeed, winning the Australian Open has made him even more convinced of his ability to take on the best. "It gives you confidence," he said.

"It gives you a belief in yourself when you find yourself in certain important moments, when you just need to come up with something good and something special and you try to be calm and hold your nerve.

"That's what happens when you have the experience of winning Grand Slams. That's why Roger and Rafa are so dominant and they look so good on the court when they have these important moments. They're really calm and know what to do. This is what I'm still trying to do – and I think I'm getting there."

Djokovic admitted that he had found the recent schedule very demanding. In the space of 10 days he flew from Cincinnati to Beijing via a brief stop at home in Belgrade, played six matches at the Olympics and then travelled here.

"You can imagine how I feel," he said. "The last couple of weeks were really exhausting."

While some players have complained of the disruption to the calendar caused by the Olympics, Djokovic relished the experience and the chance to represent his country. "It's so different," he said.

"You have top athletes from all around the world from different sports. Everybody starts from zero. There are no favourites whatsoever. Anything can happen. Just to be there is a huge achievement and to win a medal is something you remember for a lifetime."

A proud Serb, Djokovic said it had been a privilege to represent his country. "As an individual, in an individual sport, you represent yourself first, then your family and then your country. Every time you show up at a tournament you see yourself on the big screen with your name and your country up there. At the Olympics, no matter what sport you're from, you're participating in one of the greatest events and you're an ambassador for your country.

"When you show up in a big country like the United States and people see where you're from they get interested in your country. That's a great thing for us. Serbia is a small country, with just nine or 10 million people, nothing compared to the United States."