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US Open champ Novak Djokovic slowly gaining respect

NEW YORK -- One day they might make a visor cap with his stylized initials on the crown. One day he might invent a shot and give it a snappy acronym, say, BAD (Bombs Away by Djokovic). One day, it might be his name that rolls like thunder, down through the rows of seats in the stadia of the world's capitals.

All that might happen one day, but for now Novak Djokovic is going to have to settle for merely being the tennis player who towers over the towering players. Make that a crop of players who have defined this as the most productive -- and probably the greatest -- generation of tennis players.

"I wouldn't necessarily say I'm dominating, but I definitely am very proud of all the achievements," Djokovic said in his postmatch news conference on Sunday night, after beating Roger Federer 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 in the US Open final to claim his third Grand Slam title of the year.

Djokovic was also in the final of the major he didn't win, the French Open, joining Federer and Rod Laver as the only other men in the Open era who made all four Grand Slam finals in the same year.

After winning his 10th major, just one behind Laver and Bjorn Borg, Djokovic also said he harbored no resentment against a crowd that not only showered Federer with affection but often greeted Djokovic service faults with applause. Some called out or whistled just as Djokovic tossed the ball to serve.

"I can't sit here and criticize the crowd," Djokovic said. "On the contrary, I think it's logical to expect that a great player and a champion like Roger has the majority of the support anywhere I play him. I accept the fact."

Djokovic said Federer "absolutely deserves" the support, and added, "Me, I'm there to earn the support, and hopefully in the future I can be in that position."

Laudable sentiments for sure, but they do leave you wondering just when that "future" might arrive. Ten Slams into record books, Djokovic is already an icon. The shirt-tearing, chest-pounding days of yore appear to be a part of his exuberant youth, or perhaps they were merely a Rafael Nadal-specific, mano-a-mano reaction -- you know, you show me your guns, I'll show you mine.

When Djokovic won on Sunday, he merely turned and stared at the player-guest box containing his family, coaches and friends, discreetly pointed to his chest, and smiled. Surely his restraint had something to do with the respect he feels for Federer, leavened with the sense that spiking the tennis ball would do little to improve his standing with a tough New York crowd.

His game, however, must have won him converts even in that tennis-savvy, sometimes jaded crowd. Federer and his fresh, recently turbo-charged offense (highlighted by that grandiosely named SABR (Sneak Attack by Roger) tactic were the talk of this summer, right through the first six rounds of this tournament -- rounds through which Federer was a perfect 18-0 in sets.

From Day 1 of the tournament, a bright sun smiled down on Federer through still, mostly cloudless skies, creating ideal conditions for the kind of precise, attacking tennis Federer hoped would carry him to that long-sought 18th major title.

What irony, then, that on the final and most challenging day of Federer's quest the skies grew roiled, flags snapped angrily in a chill wind, rain pelted the National Tennis Center and out of the darkness came the closest thing tennis has to a grim reaper, Djokovic.

The match was delayed for a little more than three hours, and when it finally started, Federer found himself dealing with the least friendly conditions he had faced all week -- and the most deadly opponent he has faced since Nadal at his peak.

Djokovic fought Federer the way an accomplished angler hooks and reels in a trophy fish. He was patient. When his quarry went on a dangerous run, as Federer did when he won the second set, Djokovic was careful to contain the Swiss -- firm, but without panicking or forcing the issue.

Most significantly, the combination of Djokovic's punishing style, accuracy and consistency wore Federer down much like a flexible fishing rod wears down the strongest of fish. The all-time Grand Slam champion is, after all, 34 years old. And though Federer led the head-to-head 21-20 going into this final, he had never beaten Djokovic in a five-set match.

But in truth, your typical 24-year-old tennis hotshots have comparable -- or worse -- problems trying to stay with Djokovic.

As Federer said in his postmatch news conference: "Seems like there are not too many guys that can hang with him. They don't have the tools, or don't dare to go forward, or they aren't daring to serve and volley against him because he's so good on the return. Which he is. He's perfected his game on the hard courts, no doubt about it."

Federer then ticked off Djokovic's assets on clay and grass and concluded, "He's having an unbelievable career. I think everybody knows that; he knows that as well. Tonight is another example of that."

Djokovic, who had been dismissive of Federer's SABR tactic earlier in the tournament, had nothing but praise for it after the final and acknowledged that Federer had elevated and improved his game over the summer. Federer won 39 points in 59 chances at the net in the final. Even more telling, he won an almost startling 16 of 21 serve-and-volley points, suggesting that, if anything, he might have attacked even more vigorously.

Djokovic knew what he had to do to survive Federer's onslaught: "Just be mentally tough and try to hang in there and play point by point," the world No. 1 said. "Obviously much easier said than done."

We're not so sure about that. These days, everything seems possible for Djokovic. He had one of the greatest years ever recorded in tennis in 2011, when he won three Grand Slam championships and went 70-6 (a winning percentage of 92.1, fourth best in the Open era). This year, Djokovic is now 63-5 -- but a four-time major finalist.

"I'm a different player, a different person today than I was in 2011," Djokovic said. "As a father, and a husband, it's completely different approach to tennis. I feel more complete as a player today than I was in 2011. Physically stronger, mentally more experienced and tougher as well."

Tough enough to beat everyone, tough enough to want -- but not exactly need -- the love of the crowd.