11:24 PM EDT, March 11, 2014
A sport that needs every bit of personality it can get held its breath for a few minutes Tuesday at Indian Wells.
One of tennis' marquee names had departed from the BNP Paribas Open the day before, and out the door with upset victim Rafael Nadal went lots of star quality.
It's not a ticket-selling thing. Most of that was accomplished here months and weeks ago. It's image for the sport, TV ratings on the weekend and a general desire to get as many people as possible to pay attention and care. Football, basketball, baseball and hockey aren't the only pro sports pushing their brand.
So when an unheralded Colombian named Alejandro Gonzalez — ranked 91st and without a match win on the ATP tour this year until he got two of them here in the desert — forced a center-court match into a third set, there were many eyes opening wide.
Gonzalez seemed to have his second-seeded opponent in trouble. Would Novak Djokovic leave early, too?
The answer, a definitive no, came quickly.
Djokovic, the rubbery-limbed Serb, held serve to start the third set, then fought off a 40-love lead by Gonzalez to get it back to deuce, where the fun began.
Six more times, Gonzalez had game point. Each time, Djokovic got it back to deuce. It became fairly evident, in a sport where real turning points are usually overrated or overstated, that this game would be one.
When it ended, the future of this match was clear. Djokovic had the needed service break and the rest was merely ceremonial. The final 6-1, 6-3, 6-1 score was a good measure of the match.
But how that game ended was even more telling. The often flamboyant Djokovic, whose skills are on a level with his personality, stopped all the smashing and angling and top-spinning and slicing by touching a perfect drop shot over the net on the first break point he had managed, in a game that probably took 15 minutes.
With Gonzalez well behind the baseline, the ball fluttered slowly, barely over the net and settled right on the sideline. Gonzalez didn't even try. Like the large crowd in the large stadium watching, he was witnessing a moment of athletic greatness.
So many players try that shot. So many fail. It takes as much guts as touch. Few will try it at the key moment in a match. But then, few are Djokovic.
He is 26 now. It was seven years ago, in this tournament, that his stature began to rise and tennis began to take notice. He made it all the way to the Indian Wells final in 2007, losing to an already established rising star, Nadal. Then, he went off to Miami, to the second of the consecutive Masters Series 1000 events on the calendar, and beat Nadal en route to winning the title.
"This tournament has a special place in my career," he said Tuesday. ". . . This was one of the springboards for the future success I had."
And what success it has been.
He has won six Grand Slam titles. He has been ranked No. 1 for a total of 101 weeks. He started the 2011 season with 41 straight victories. He has had so many memorable battles with the other current established stars of the men's game that they are hard to rank.
He is 17-22 against Nadal, but also achieved a feat that is Joe DiMaggio-like in his sport — he beat Nadal seven times in a row.
He is 15-16 against Roger Federer, who has won the record 17 major titles and who is still in the running here. It was Federer who ended the 41-match streak in 2011 at the French Open.
And he is 11-8 against Andy Murray, the fourth of the sport's male quadrangle of champions. Murray is also still alive here.
Federer and Murray are on the other side of the bracket, and the people running this event would be thrilled with a Djokovic-Federer or Djokovic-Murray final.
Djokovic's side of the bracket, now that he has survived the unexpected in Gonzalez, appears to be a clear path. He is the only player in the top 10 there.
With each Djokovic advancement comes a boost for the sport. For the informed tennis fan, his game is special. He covers the court effortlessly, serves big but also with a variety of speed and kicks, and has a mind that produces moments such as the drop shot against Gonzalez.
"I have been in these situations before," he said, referring to what he called a lapse in concentration that got him into the fix Tuesday. "I at least recognize what the issue is, and I need to work on it."
Djokovic brands the sport almost better than anybody, certainly close to the level of the already legendary Federer. Djokovic has been profiled on "60 Minutes," has appeared on Jay Leno's show and with Jimmy Fallon, has been in music videos and had songs written about him. He does charity work and is not bashful about taking an occasional political stance.
He speaks five languages — Serbian, English, German, Italian and French.
Shortly after he made his rise in tennis, he dazzled millions on a telecast of the U.S. Open, where he did impersonations of Nadal, Maria Sharapova and John McEnroe. When he mimicked Nadal's tug at the underpants, Sharapova's pre-point conversations with herself and McEnroe's quirky sideways service motion, a star was born.
Tuesday, at this important and prestigious U.S. tennis event, the star remained, despite a scary blink or two along the way.
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