Zany Djokovic takes new role seriously

NEW YORK -- He used to be the Djoker. These days, he's being dubbed the Djuggernaut.

It's been the story of the year: After playing third fiddle the past few years, Novak Djokovic has leaped past Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer this year to become No. 1 in the world. Like his two rivals, Djokovic is taking his new, exalted position seriously. "I'm aware of the responsibility that I have as a present No. 1 to represent the sport as well in some ways off the court," he said.

But he's not just following in their footsteps -- the Serb is bringing his personality to the role, adding a little showmanship and humor as the face of men's tennis. He's still not above doing his famous impersonations, though these days he can do them for profit -- his racket company is running a campaign during this U.S. Open based on his famous impersonation of Maria Sharapova. He has indulged his newfound celebrity, appearing on Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien, but also has taken on a role as a UNICEF ambassador. And he has retained his old mischievousness. When was the last time a No. 1 flipped a racket at an unsuspecting interviewer? Maybe we should call him the Djokernaut.

"I like to enjoy things. Why not?" he said a few weeks ago. "Something that keeps your mind a little bit off tennis, because tennis is the longest season in sport, very requiring sport. It's always mental each day. You have to be professional 100 percent on the court, work hours and hours, play matches. People don't even realize the free time that we don't have, things that we are sacrificing to be here. Whenever I have the opportunity to experience something else, why not? I enjoy it."

At the same time, he stresses that he's taking his game very seriously and hasn't allowed his success to distract him. His results have certainly backed up his words.

"My approach is really the same. My routine, you know, preparation for tournaments, practices, nothing has changed really. It's all the same," Djokovic said. "I think that helps me to stay where I am, to stay grounded, to stay focused and to stay determined and professional. I think it's the only way for me to be able to hold this place where I am. There is a lot of temptations, of course. There is more attention from the world of sport toward me and my career. But I think with a really good group of people that is around me, I'm handling it well."

These dual elements were nicely captured by consecutive points during his second-round match against Carlos Berlocq. Up 6-0, 6-0, 1-0, Djokovic was still sprinting for a drop-shot ahead 15-40, and grimacing in disappointment when he missed. After that followed an entertaining net exchange that went back and forth, before Djokovic finally put away an overhead and pumped his fists like he had just won a five-setter.

By that point, the match almost resembled an exhibition. Berlocq already had endeared himself to the crowd by smiling ruefully during his beatdown and urging the stadium to cheer him on; he even received a standing ovation when he finally won his first game a few minutes later. And appropriately enough, Djokovic reached match point on the strength of a between-the-legs shot.

"One of the guys actually on the way out, he said, 'Hey, listen, I paid 100 bucks. You're staying an hour and a half on the court. That's a lot to pay for a ticket. Give me something so I get back home with a happy face. Give me a racket or something,'" Djokovic laughed afterward. "I played good tennis. Obviously I wanted to win. But on the other hand we all try to engage the crowd.

"I think the crowd got engaged in the third set. It was nice. It was a lot of entertainment kind of long and attractive points, the through-the-leg shot, things like that. He tried to get the crowd on his side, and he did. It was a really good third set."

It hasn't been all fun and games. Djokovic has been defensive about a Wall Street Journal story this week that reported his use of a hyperbaric chamber, a nominally legal but still mysterious device that is meant to aid recovery. Djokovic maintains that he hasn't used the device this year and stated he would not talk about it further, similar to the way he clammed up earlier this year about his new gluten-free eating regimen.

But with just three games dropped on his way to the third round, there hasn't been much else to talk about except his dominance. His next opponent is with Nikolay Davydenko, against whom he began the hard-court season. The former world No. 4 isn't quite the force he used to be and is not expected to stretch the Serb for long periods.

Serb army

It's not just Djokovic who'll be flying the Serbian flag. The day will also feature Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Janko Tipsarevic and Andrea Petkovic, a German of Serbian origin. The disproportionate tennis success of this small country of 7 million, which until recently had no organized tennis development system, has been frequently remarked on but still bears noting.

"Yeah, it's incredible. I think it's definitely one thing is the genes, because we are all tall, strong like, I don't know, bears," said Petkovic, who speaks Serbian and is friendly with the players from her native region. "So it's just in the genes. And we eat meat all the time. We eat like five kilos of meat every day. It has to come from somewhere."

And it's not just Serbia. There has been a whole wave of players from the former Yugoslavia, from direct representatives such as Ivo Karlovic and Marin Cilic, also in action, to transplants such as Milos Raonic of Canada (born in Montenegro) and Bernard Tomic of Australia (Croatia).

"The thing is we do have a similar mentality," Petkovic said. "The Balkan region, they were never scared. It doesn't matter if it's in politics or in sports. Also if you see the soccer team in Serbia, they always beat Germany, France, Brazil, and then they lose to Australia, I don't know, China -- I don't want to hurt anybody. Because, you know, when they play the big ones, they are like, 'Yeah. Come on. Let's do this.' [But] they have this little bad touch that they like to underestimate weaker opponents.

The next round could offer a test of this theory: Cilic, Karlovic and Tipsarevic take on higher seeds, while Ivanovic, Jankovic and Petkovic have lower-ranked opponents.

Major matchup

The first big matchup on the women's side has arrived, with Serena Williams facing Victoria Azarenka for a spot in the second week. The big-hitting Azarenka is the player most likely to give Williams trouble in her half of the draw, but will have to play her best.

"I have to be focused on my game instead of focusing on Serena," Azarenka said. "I have to raise my level from the previous matches.

"She serves the fastest of anybody else, but I've done pretty well returning her serve."

Just managing to finish the match might be an achievement. She once retired against Williams up 6-2, 2-4 and fainted during her match at the U.S. Open last year. Azarenka has struggled with a wrist injury during the past couple of weeks, but says she is now recovered.

Veteran performances

Tommy Haas has had three shoulder surgeries, two broken ankles, elbow surgery, hip surgery and a chronic knee problem -- and that's on top of the usual niggles and knocks players experience. Juan Carlos Ferrero has been afflicted with a near-career-ending bout of chicken pox, wrist and rib injuries, a shoulder injury that kept him out for three months, knee surgery and wrist surgery.

Yet, these two 30-somethings are still around at the U.S. Open. Ferrero takes on fellow Spaniard Marcel Granollers after outlasting Gael Monfils in 4 hours, 48 minutes, a spectacular encounter in front of a packed Louis Armstrong court. "The match means a lot for me," said former No.1 and French Open champ Ferrero. "It was a long time that I didn't enjoy inside the court."

This is Ferrero's first Grand Slam since last year's U.S. Open because of surgery and recurring injuries. In May, he was thinking about retirement.

Former No. 2 Haas, who returned from surgery in May after 14 months away, is making yet another comeback at 33 and will play Juan Monaco in the third round.

"When you get a little bit older and you haven't been around for quite some time, to re-find your game once again it's quite a challenge that I took up once again because I still feel like I've got some good tennis in me, and I want to try to start playing the sport on my own terms," he said. "You know, if you count up all the months I've missed due to injuries or surgeries that I've had, I mean, I'm probably 29 years old really."

Haas, who says he's planning to play for as long as his body allows, recently became a father.

"It changes your life not only because I'm a tennis professional, but once you have more responsibilities and you look in your baby's eyes, you know, different thoughts come into your mind," he said. "It gives me another reason to work hard and try to achieve some things. You know, my long time goal, would be nice if my daughter could watch me play tennis live -- which is gonna be hard because she's only 9 and a half months."

The German-born Florida resident has also acquired U.S. citizenship and has been switching back and forth between which country's code appears alongside his name. He planned to compete at the U.S. Open as an American but is listed as a German after not making the change. But in any case, he has given the local crowds plenty of drama over the years with no fewer than 14 five-setters during his 15 years of playing the tournament. His 2007 fifth-set tiebreak win over James Blake in the fourth round might be a highlight.

Ferrero's favorite U.S. Open happens to be his 2003 run to the final, defeating his much-admired Andre Agassi along the way.

Both men, however, will be hoping they're not done making memories in New York.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.