In his Eddie Haskell moments, Novak Djokovic can mimic Maria Sharapova down to the way she sweeps away imaginary bangs before every serve, and he can deliver a dead-on Rafael Nadal to include the Spaniard’s habitual tug of his Hanes.
But how do you impersonate an evolving image? How do you copy Roger Federer?
He is fluid, still creating new angles out of geometric impossibilities as he did to close out Nikolay Davydenko yesterday at the United States Open on his way to a 10th straight major final today.
“Some points he play like so good,” Davydenko said. “I don’t understand how you can.”
Federer is adaptable, able to mentally map an opponent, to zoom in with a mind that seems one part Google Earth.
“I don’t need to sit down and talk about an opponent for an hour,” Federer said. “Takes me 15 seconds. I know everything I need to know.”
In so many ways, he is like a fashion line — constantly rolling out a new him. There is the crested Great Gatsby blazer Federer wore at Wimbledon, and the tuxedo shorts he sported during his night matches at the Open.
These aren’t simply wardrobe changes, but this is a look at Federer in a mode of constant self-discovery.
“Maybe seven years ago, when I started to date Mirka, it was, oh, God, you know, I had jogging shoes and a pair of jeans,” Federer said in a recent interview. “That was it, you know. And maybe one T-shirt. I’d wear that out to dinner.
“Then, I started to really enjoy dressing up. What is my style? Is it a suit? Is it casual? What is it? I’m young now. So I can make mistakes with my choices. It’s a way to discover what I like, who I am.”
Djokovic has the task of dismantling an amorphous man, a complicated talent. Is Federer the same Federer he upset in Montreal last month as the surprise Serb? You can tell that Djokovic, the master impersonator, can’t quite figure out Federer.
“Roger is too perfect,” Djokovic said in a YouTube clip of his Rich Little antics. “You cannot imitate him.”
He has tried, though. There is YouTube footage of his Federer attempt. There is proof that Djokovic has studied the ticks and quirks of Federer.
Djokovic, in many ways, is a reasonable facsimile of Federer in terms of his touch and speed, serve and versatility. He is a multitasker, just like Federer.
It makes for an intriguing final. This is the way it was supposed to be: the rising phenom vs. the establishment.
This is the way it had to be if you’re the United States Tennis Association. By dispatching Davydenko, Federer saved tennis from an awkward ending. Imagine a major final with all the scrutiny swirling around Davydenko, who is at the center of a match-fixing controversy triggered when a British Internet betting firm voided $7 million in wagers on one of his matches. Did the mob know Davydenko would retire in the middle of a match? Was it just a coincidence? Imagine the U.S.T.A. searching Davydenko’s box today for Sopranos-like figures.
Instead, the class clown will play best in class.
“I’d like to know if Roger is carbon-based like the rest of us,” the CBS analyst Mary Carillo said in an interview before the Open. “I’m not sure he has a navel. It’s like you need proof he’s human.”
Djokovic has the chance to uncover Federer’s faults. Federer doesn’t take any threat lightly. He is more protective of his history the closer he gets to making it. He is one final victory away from 12 majors, two short of Pete Sampras’s record. The burden has created pressure for Federer.
“It’s not like I’m 25 away from Pete Sampras,” Federer said. “I’m so close. So I think about it.”
Djokovic is so far away. He is new to this. If he can deal with the moment, Djokovic will be free to come out swinging, with nothing to lose.
“I’m not trying to look at Roger,” Djokovic said. “Roger has his own career, his own life. I have my own thing. We are two different personalities.”
True, Federer is more wry. Djokovic’s humor is overt — a Chevy Chase type in love with physical comedy. At 26, Federer is an adult. At 20, Djokovic is working on it.
Federer plays to sophisticated audiences. He is close friends with Tiger Woods, icon of the globe, and Anna Wintour, the fashion stickler of Vogue. Djokovic goofs around with his locker-room pals, nameless players who egg him on to be a ham.
Yes, Djokovic has pulled some impressive upsets — and he has earned his No. 3 seeding — but it is hard to take him seriously. Is he for real? Or just a copycat?
“Actually, I need to say in the last two days the people were more congratulating me for the impressions than for my tennis,” Djokovic said. “I was wondering, guys, am I here for the impersonations, entertaining, or to play tennis?”
Can Djokovic impersonate a fluid champion?