Jan. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Novak Djokovic's decision to discard his skis for a tennis racket paid off when the 20-year-old became a Grand Slam champion for the first time at the Australian Open yesterday.
As a child, Djokovic had been intent on following his father, uncle and aunt into professional skiing. Instead, he opted for service and slice over slalom and snow, and headed to a tennis academy in Munich as a 12-year-old.
Less than eight years after, Djokovic defeated unseeded Jo- Wilfried Tsonga in the Melbourne Park final to become the first Grand Slam singles winner from Serbia. The country doesn't have a hard court and was racked by war when he was growing up.
``Considering all the bad times we had when I grew up and practiced there, it was basically impossible,'' Djokovic told reporters at Rod Laver Arena. ``But I always believed.''
Djokovic, who won over fans at the U.S. Open with his player impersonations, had the spectators against him as Tsonga continued his crowd-pleasing run to clinch the first set with a top-spin lob at full pace.
It was Djokovic's first loss of a set at this year's Australian Open and his expression contrasted the smiley face logo he uses as a string dampener on his racket.
Djokovic worked his way back into the match and constrained Tsonga's flair, grinding him down in a fourth-set tiebreak after struggling with a hamstring pain. His 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (7-2) win was the first Grand Slam victory by a player other than Federer and Nadal for three years.
``He played unbelievable,'' said 22-year-old Tsonga, appearing in his first final at any tournament.
Djokovic's rise has been rapid, even for a player who first swung a racket as a four-year-old. He turned professional in 2003 and was the youngest player in the top 100 by the end of 2005. He won his first men's tour title at the Dutch Open the following year before breaking into the top 10 last year.
Nicknamed Nole, Djokovic clinched five titles in 2007 and became the first player to defeat Federer and Rafael Nadal at the same tournament, the Rogers Cup in Montreal. He joked it should be re-named Novak's Cup.
Djokovic, whose tennis idol is Pete Sampras, got his first shot at a major championship in New York. Then, nerves got the better of him and Federer clinched his fourth straight U.S. Open title and 12th Grand Slam.
``Playing in a Grand Slam final gave me a lot of experience which I used today,'' he said after yesterday's final. ``In these crucial moments I was probably more patient and focused.''
Djokovic ended Federer's 19-match winning streak in Melbourne in the semifinals -- the Serb's fourth straight appearance in the last four of a major. He handed the top-ranked Swiss a first straight-set defeat at a Grand Slam in 102 matches stretching back to the 2004 French Open.
His victory yesterday was a milestone for Serbia, a country of 10 million people lacking tennis facilities. Three of the singles semifinalists in Australia were Serbs, while another, Janko Tipsarevic, took Federer to five sets in the third round.
Like Australian Open runner-up Ana Ivanovic and semifinalist Jelena Jankovic, Djokovic needed to go abroad to develop his talent. On the advice of his first coach Jelena Gencic, who also worked with nine-time major winner Monica Seles, Djokovic went to Niki Pilic's academy in Munich in 1999 - - the year when NATO bombed Serbia.
``This hunger for success and the times and things we went through made us stronger,'' Djokovic said. ``It's still unexplainable because there was no system whatsoever in our country for tennis.''
Djokovic, who plans to build a national tennis center in his home country, might face a challenge to remain the top- ranked Serb -- and the top-ranked Djokovic. His 16-year-old brother Marko appeared in the Australian Open junior tournament and 12-year-old Djordje is also an aspiring tennis player.
Djordje rates his eldest brother's most annoying trait as his lateness. Yesterday, he waited a set before his No. 1 game arrived to dispatch Tsonga. Sitting next to the trophy less than two hours later, he said the victory hadn't sunk in.``I'm still probably on the court and still with the thoughts on the match and these two weeks,'' Djokovic said. ``But I think people in my country will prove it to me big time."
More on Djokovic and the other top-seated Serbian players on Byzantine Sacred Art Blog