When Novak Djokovic checked into the Barclay on 48th Street three weeks ago, he was a little-known tennis player from Serbia.
He’ll leave New York a star.
By the time Djokovic, 20, reached yesterday’s final, he had impressed a tennis world with his play and won crowds over with his emotive personality.
Off the court, the celebrity treatment started even earlier.
Last week, Robert De Niro and his wife Grace Hightower invited Djokovic and fellow Serb tennis player Ana Ivanovic to a private dinner at their Japanese restaurant, Nobu. “It was really nice,” said Djokovic last night at a press conference. “He owns the Japanese restaurant, so we went there for dinner. We met, we talked.”
De Niro sat in Djokovic’s box in the stands for the final—along with Maria Sharapova, who was eliminated from the tournament eight days earlier—and after the straight-sets loss to Roger Federer, Djokovic and his entourage took off to celebrate with De Niro at Wakiya, a Chinese restaurant at the Gramercy Park Hotel.
Djokovic has clearly warmed to the attention. On Thursday night, after his quarterfinals victory, he treated a sold-out Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd to his exaggerated impressions of other tennis players. Prompted by an interviewer, he fixed his posture, tucked his shirt into his shorts and started hopping around the court like Sharapova. Soon after, he pulled the bottom of his shorts below his knees and started removing a wedgie, a la Rafael Nadal.
“To get, you know, American people behind you, especially a crowd here in U.S. Open, is not so easy,” he said. “Obviously they like my character on and off the court. So I get a lot of compliments on my impersonation, more than I get on tennis.”
But of course, it’s his tennis that got him this far. Over the last two weeks, as Djokovic showcased his lightning serve and his relentlessly tough attitude on the court, he didn’t play flawlessly, but found a way to grind his way to victories, including a memorable five-set win in the second round against Radek Stepanek that New York Times sports reporter Liz Robbins said was one of the three best matches she’s ever seen at the Open.
At several points during his two-week run at the Open, Djokovic’s coach Marian Vajda told me that he was getting more and more impressed with Djokovic’s ability to focus, despite the increasing weight of expectations, as he became increasingly popular with the press and high-wattage New Yorkers. Last night, his Slovak coach even cracked a smile.
“I’m happy he reached the final and he played Roger Federer—the greatest player in the world,” said Vajda. “He just lost it. He made great effort. This is a very, very difficult tournament—the world’s most demanding tournament. I have to commend him. He deserves this.”
At times, Djokovic seemed oblivious to his rapidly changed status. While the most popular players—Andy Roddick, James Blake, Roger Federer—are rarely seen in the player’s lounge (where the media and family friends circulate), Djokovic was a fixture there, alternatively checking his email and playing foosball games.
He spoke so easily with members of the media that several veterans of the industry—the Times’ George Vecsey, for instance—wondered aloud when Djokovic would begin acting like every other press-weary star on the tour. (There were signs that that process has begin: After his semifinal win two days ago, Djokovic made a request to a USTA media official that his press conference be cut short, setting off a cascade of grumbling in the press room afterwards.)
In the end, Djokovic even had a semi-legitimate shot at capping his week off in truly spectacular fashion by taking down Federer in the final. He had five set points in the first set and two set points in the second. That he lost them all can be chalked up to inexperience and nerves, neither an unreasonable characteristic in a first-time finalist.
At the press conference after his loss last night, Djokovic was all smiles, fully conscious, despite the loss, of what he accomplished.
Asked at one point how long those seven set points lost would haunt him, Djokovic grinned and said, “My next book is going to be called, ‘Seven Set Points.’”