Sunday, January 30, 2011

Having matured, Djokovic proves himself as legitimate threat to the Big Two


After cruising by Andy Murray Sunday night at the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic grasped the championship trophy for the second time — exactly three years after he won his first grand slam tournament.

In between, there have been many disappointments, a few close calls — especially his loss in the championship match of last year's US Open to red-hot Rafael Nadal — and a slew of frustrating injuries. Lost in all the negatives, however, is just how much better the Serbian has become.

His serve's a little better. He has refined his groundstrokes. Most importantly, though, Djokovic has become mentally strong — a trait that, until now, separated Nadal and Roger Federer from the rest of the world's players even if they were just as physically talented.

It used to be, Djokovic would become frustrated and angered quickly, yelling at his racket and staring at his player's box after consecutive poor shots. Such reactions rarely led to improved play. Meanwhile, on the other side of the net, Federer or Nadal coolly picked the youngster apart.

Game. Set. Match.

In Sunday's three-set victory, it was Murray, the young British hope, who was talking to his racket and who let a break toward the end of the opening set seemingly affect him poorly during the following less competitive sets. Djokovic, like an experienced champion, took advantage of Murray's fragile mental state.

Is his game better than Murray's? Perhaps slightly — he hits his forehand down the line better. But it's not three-sets-to-love better. Mentally, he's light years ahead of the world's No. 4-ranked player.

Djokovic knows just how far he's come since that first Grand Slam title, when he was having all kinds of fun — and got plenty of enjoyment out of mimicking other players — but was far from a complete player.

"I feel like a better player now than I was three years ago, because I think that physically I'm stronger, faster, mentally I'm more motivated on the court," Djokovic said. "I know how to react in certain moments, and I know how to play on a big stage. I have been more focused and dedicated to the sport than I have ever been before."

And now, with Federer edging toward 30, Djokovic clearly has the chance to move into the world's No. 2 spot and be a legitimate threat to win every major — even if he has to go through both Federer and Nadal (something he still hasn't done at a major).

In Djokovic's three-set victory over Federer in the semifinals, he was, quite simply, the better player. In past matches, he was just as good physically but didn't win the big points, didn't execute shots when he absolutely needed to. That's changed now.

Not only is Djokovic as talented as any player in the game; he's as mentally tough, too. Now the question is, Can he bring the same package to every tournament, especially the big ones?

Only time will tell. As for Murray, Sunday illustrated that he's still where Djokovic was at least three years ago. And only time will tell if he can make the same transformation.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Novak shows leadership, shooting touch in Wolverines' win


With his team clinging to a precarious one-point lead, Zack Novak didn’t hesitate to step into the biggest shot of his best half of basketball this season.

Novak, who struggled to knock down open shots during the 2010 portion of this season, nailed a 3-pointer from the top of the key Sunday afternoon to help Michigan pull away from Penn State for a 76-69 win.

It was a much-needed victory for the Wolverines (11-3, 1-1), who couldn’t afford to lose their first two Big Ten games — both at home — with their next three games at Wisconsin, and back at Crisler Arena versus No. 3 Kansas and No. 2 Ohio State.


As good as Darius Morris was against the Nittany Lions (8-5, 1-1), accumulating 20 points and 10 assists for his fifth double-double of the season, we’ve come to expect that from him. What the season’s first 13 games hadn’t indicated was what Novak, the junior, provided — and Michigan needed — in Sunday’s final 20 minutes.

Novak scored all 15 of his points on 5-of-6 shooting and grabbed all four of his rebounds after intermission. He entered he game shooting 33 percent on the season — yes, brutal — but finally found his stroke, making two 3-pointers and adding a pair of transition layups on which he simply outhustled everyone else on the court.

“That really felt good (for him). You could see the smile on his face,” coach John Beilein said of his upperclassman. “He’s such a leader on this team.”

Until Sunday, for the most part, he was a leader whose impact hadn’t been felt. Going forward, Michigan will need more such performances.

As one of the Wolverines’ best defenders and rebounders, it’s important for Novak to be on the floor. But prior to Sunday, he had almost been an offensive liability, allowing defenses to focus more attention on Morris and Douglass, who has been the Wolverines’ most consistent outside threat (45 percent from deep).

If Novak is nailing open shots like he did against Penn State as well as pump-faking and driving — as he, Douglass and Matt Vogrich all did Sunday — it takes some pressure off Morris and makes the Wolverines that much more difficult to guard.

Which, in turn, leads to works of efficacy like Sunday’s second half, during which Michigan outscored Penn State 45-33 and shot 60.9 percent.

“To score what we did in the second half is great for us because as we develop our defense, we’re going to have to score points,” Beilein said.

And he’s right. Michigan’s defense was not great Sunday, but a lot of that had to do with facing a great offensive threat in Taylor Battle (31 points). Battle hit an array of difficult shots, and the Wolverines’ youth also showed through a slew of ticky-tack fouls on the perimeter that put the Nittany Lions in the bonus early.

“We need to do extra conditioning to keep from hand-checking,” Beilein said.

That’s especially the case with talents such as Jared Sullinger and Kansas’ Morris twins on the upcoming schedule.

But Sunday was a big step in the right direction for the Wolverines. And Zack Novak had a lot do with that — on both ends of the court.