After he cracks jokes, he grows deadly serious. After his breath stutters during a match, he summons more energy. After he indicates the presence of an injury, he grows stronger. And after he appears nearly beaten, Novak Djokovic wins.
Now that Djokovic is the U.S. Open champion and undisputed ruler of the tennis universe, it is obvious that with the world No. 1, appearances can deceive.
For years, the Serb was in a kind of Siberia, wandering the shadow territory behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. While those two men compiled 26 major titles between them, Djokovic was one of their highly ranked foils, claiming one Grand Slam — the 2008 Australian Open — and 17 other titles from 2005-10.
But as Djokovic’s nearly flawless 2011 performance proves, there was a world-beating champion within — one who rose up in 2011 with a sudden rush of power.
“I want the same thing I’ve wanted since I was 7 years old,” he told the New York Times in 2007, when he had risen to No. 6. “I want to be No. 1.”
Touring NYC a day after toppling Nadal for his first Open title and third major of the year, Djokovic, 24, echoed that sense of destiny.
“There is a lot more to prove,” he told reporters yesterday, “a lot more tournaments to win.”
Max J. Dickstein (Twitter: @amNYsports) is amNewYork’s sports editor.