Novak Djokovic, defending Australian Open champion and current No. 3 in the world, became a fan-favorite during his breakthrough 2007 season, when, after a match victory at the U.S. Open, he obliged the crowd by performing his impressions of Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova. He made it as far as the final of that tournament, and, though he lost in straight sets to a then still-dominant Roger Federer, he managed to win the enthusiastic approval of the crowd and even Maria Sharapova herself, who cheered the Serbian on from his box. Riding that high into 2008, Djokovic proceeded to take the Australian Open, ousting Federer along the way. For a time, it looked like his would be the story of the year, and his star continued to rise with an impressive run culminating in a pivotal match against Rafael Nadal, with Nadal's long-held No. 2 ranking on the line. Nadal won that match, of course, and we all know what followed for the Spaniard.
As for Djokovic, the rest of 2008 was pretty rough as he fell well out of the spotlight, but he had no one to blame but himself. Probably wanting to be viewed as a serious contender rather than a comedian, he quit performing his impressions despite fans' requests. After demolishing Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open, he decided to add insult to injury during the on-court interview by taking verbal stabs at his defeated opponent, responding to some playful teasing by Roddick from an earlier press conference. Djokovic's bitter and ill-timed remarks elicited boos from the same New York crowd that had cheered him a year earlier, and, when interviewer Michael Barkann offered him extra chances to redeem himself, he instead made things worse by declaring his resentment toward the fans for their favoritism of his American opponent. After Federer again eliminated him from the tournament, much to the delight of the crowd, Djokovic later expressed regret at his handling of the Roddick incident.
Coming into the 2009 Australian Open as the reigning champion and with the momentum of victory from 2008's year-ending Masters Cup, it looks like Djokovic is back to playing the villain, scoffing at the suggestion that Andy Murray, world No. 4, may be one of the favorites to win. While Murray has not quite equaled Djokovic's accomplishments, he is right now in a position very similar to Djokovic's a year ago, coming in following a spectacular couple of months that included his first major final at the U.S. Open. With several tournament victories and key wins over both Nadal and Federer, there is little question that Murray is right now the hottest player on tour. Amid the frightening violence between Serbian and Bosnian fans at the Australian Open, Djokovic's comments seem not just silly, but also incredibly crass.
But, remembering back to the days of his self-promotion through viral videos of his Sharapova impressions, one gets a better understanding of Djokovic's nature as a performer craving the spotlight. With everyone focused on Nadal, Federer, and now Murray, perhaps Djokovic is simply saying whatever he needs to to draw attention back to himself. I must admit, a Djokovic-Murray match suddenly sounds more exciting than a Nadal-Federer final.