Dominant Djokovic finds drive to alter the landscape

He has beaten Nadal twice on clay in eight days and is closing in on world No 1. Paul Newman charts the Serb's rise and rise
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There are some people within tennis who would like to see the back of the Davis Cup. They say the team event sits uneasily in the calendar, disrupts the hard, clay and grass-court seasons, interrupts players' individual schedules and distracts them from their relentless pursuit of world ranking points.

However, do not try telling that to Novak Djokovic, who believes the historic competition has been a major factor in his extraordinary run of success, which is changing the landscape of the men's game. The 23-year-old Serb's victory over Rafael Nadal in the final of the Rome Masters on Sunday was his 39th victory in succession (leaving him just seven short of Guillermo Vilas's Open era record set in 1977) and his 37th of the season (putting him five behind John McEnroe's 1984 record for an unbeaten run at the start of a year).

Having won seven tournaments in a row, Djokovic looks certain to replace Nadal as world No 1 in the coming weeks. Nadal and Roger Federer are the only men who have led the rankings since the latter supplanted Andy Roddick more than seven years ago.

Djokovic's extraordinary run dates back – both in chronology and in terms of his state of mind – to Serbia's victory in the Davis Cup in December. He is a fierce patriot who feels so passionately about his country that he made a speech three years ago via a video link at a rally in Belgrade protesting about Kosovo's moves towards independence. Leading Serbia to their first Davis Cup meant more to him than the Grand Slam titles he won at the Australian Open in 2008 and earlier this year.

"The Davis Cup was the start of this great run," Djokovic said. "It was a huge match for us, a historic match that gave me a lot of energy. It was the best three days in my life as a tennis player, especially the last day, when we won the title. Nothing really can compare with that feeling. From that moment onwards I was very motivated."

One week younger than Andy Murray, Djokovic has long been recognised as one of the outstanding players of his generation. He broke into the world's top 100 at 18, won his first Masters Series tournament at 19 and his first Grand Slam title at 20.

However, for the best part of three years after his first Australian Open Djokovic's career stalled. Although he never dropped out of the world's top four, he failed to make the final of 10 successive Grand Slam tournaments.

Djokovic believes he struggled to cope with the pressure after making his Grand Slam breakthrough. "I was very young then and hitting the ball without any cares," he said. "After that, in 2009 and 2010, I was introduced to pressure and expectations and faced situations I hadn't faced before. It wasn't easy to cope with all of that."

He added: "I didn't have this consistency or the right mental approach when I played the big players. I was losing a lot of matches at the later stages of Grand Slams and Masters Series events against Roger or Rafa just because I didn't have a lot of self-belief and confidence that I could win against those guys."

Physical problems dragged Djokovic down. He had a sinus operation following breathing difficulties, suffered allergic reactions and seemed to lack stamina. He retired in the middle of some big matches, most notably against Roddick in Melbourne and against Federer in Monte Carlo.

That he is much stronger today is partly explained by the discovery last year that he is allergic to gluten. Djokovic now avoids pizza, pasta and bread – not easy after spending much of his childhood in his parents' pizzeria and pancake restaurant in the Serbian mountains – and has lost weight as a result, though he hardly had much to spare. He was always quick around the court and Murray now describes him as "one of the best movers ever".

Djokovic made his name as an aggressive baseliner, but his serving and volleys were weaknesses. He recruited Todd Martin to join his entourage in 2009, working alongside his long-time coach, Marian Vajda, but found having two voices hard to handle and cut short the arrangement last year. He ditched his new service action, put renewed faith in Vajda and now feels at ease again with those around him. He is now a complete player, capable of excelling on all surfaces.

"I identify my success with the maturity I have right now as a person and as a player," Djokovic said. "Everything came together after a long four- or five-year process of learning and dedication, getting experience of the tour, being patient and just working hard and hoping that one day this work would pay off. I think I always had the quality to beat the best players in the world on different surfaces but now I believe it more on the court. I'm more stable, emotionally."

Having lost his first eight matches on clay to Nadal, Djokovic has now beaten him twice on his favourite surface in successive weeks. Nevertheless, the bookmakers still see Nadal as the favourite to win the French Open, which begins on Sunday. It is way too early to write off the 24-year-old Spaniard, who is still a young man, still tops the world rankings and has nine Grand Slam titles to Djokovic's two.

Having been criticised for arrogance in the past, Djokovic has added modesty and humility to his maturity. Asked on Sunday night whether he had replaced Nadal as "the king of clay", he replied: "Let's be clear. He's the king of clay and the best player ever to play this game on this surface. He has been so dominant on clay courts. Yes, I have won against him twice in the last eight days, which is an incredible achievement for me and gives me a lot of confidence going into the French Open, but it's only a couple of tournaments this year. He has been so dominant on this surface for so many years already."

The world No 1 ranking looks sure to be Djokovic's soon – even if Nadal keeps his title at Roland Garros, Djokovic would overtake him by finishing runner-up – but that will not satisfy the Serb. "There is a difference between the dream that I have and the ambition that I have," he said last week. "The ambition is to be No 1 and the dream is to win Wimbledon."

39 not out

Novak Djokovic's victory in Rome saw him claim his seventh title in a row and stretch his unbeaten run to a remarkable 39 matches (37 in 2011). The 23-year-old world No 2 has now defeated Rafael Nadal in four finals this year on both hard and clay surfaces.



Tournaments

* Australian Open – Beat Andy Murray 6-4, 6-2, 6-3.

* Dubai – Beat Roger Federer 6-3, 6-3

* Indian Wells – Beat Rafael Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 6-2

* Miami – Beat Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 7-6

* Belgrade – Beat Feliciano Lopez 7-6, 6-2 * Madrid – Beat Nadal 7-5, 6-4

* Rome – Beat Nadal 6-4, 6-4

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