Last Year's Man

by: Steve Tignor | September 06, 2012

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NEW YORK—”Well, I always try to fight every, every point, and sometimes it’s difficult when you have in front of you a warrior, you know. He’s a very, very good player.”
Juan Martin del Potro had a baseball hat pulled low over his head as he said these words to the press at Flushing Meadows last night. He had just finished playing about as well as a man can play while losing in straight sets. The “warrior” he was referring to was the man who had beaten him 6-2, 7-6 (4), 6-4 in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, Novak Djokovic. On the one hand, as Djokovic said afterward, their match had been closer than those scores indicated. Del Potro had served for the second set, and the two players had brought the crowd to its feet multiple times in appreciation of their fantastic, exhausting rallies. On the other hand, though, it wasn’t the match that was memorable as much as it was Djokovic’s performance. While only two of the ATP’s famed Big 4 will play in the Open’s semifinals this weekend, Nole showed that it remains an exclusive club. Even a player as accomplished as del Potro, champion here in 2009, appeared to have glaring weaknesses when compared to the Serb.
“I made the quarters of a Grand Slam,” del Potro said, taking some rightful satisfaction in his performance over the last two weeks. “I am getting closer to the Top 5. [But] I know that they are playing much better than me....It’s tough getting closer to them.”
In bringing up the Top 5 rather than the Top 4, del Potro admitted David Ferrer into the club, and that’s fair to a degree. Ferrer hasn’t lost before the quarterfinals of a major this year, and is currently in his second semifinal. And he’ll give his opponent there, Djokovic, all he can handle. But if the Nole is in anything like the form he was in tonight, chances are Ferru isn’t going to win. Tonight Djokovic reminded us of what he can do on a court, what he did for long stretches in 2011, and how he does it when he’s at his best.
He was motivated, he said, by the New York audience—which may be a sign that Novak is good at hearing what he wants to hear, because the packed crowd in Ashe was firmly in del Potro’s corner. Nole just can’t seem to win at the majors when it comes to audience appreciation. No matter, Djokovic took what he could get, and apparently 23,000 people roaring for your rallies was enough.
“After some points in the tiebreaker,” Djokovic said, “we both got standing ovations and applause. That was an incredible feeling for a player.” 
His voice rose with enthusiasm. “Then you get more excited and motivated to play even better. It was probably one of the better sets I’ve played in 2012.”
This was the best I’d seen of Djokovic this season, and it was hard to imagine him getting much better. It was also the first time I’d seen him play live, on hard courts, since Indian Wells, and it was obvious that he felt at home on the surface. In some ways, while del Potro beat him for the bronze medal two months ago—“That hurt me emotionally,” Djokovic said of that loss today—the Argentine is an ideal opponent for him. His baseline power allows Djokovic to showcase what’s best, and uncanniest, about his game.
Such as: The stab backhand return of serve that he makes in mid-air, which is followed by a 360-degree turn to get into position for the next shot. Or the towering defensive lob that he hit on the  run and which landed smack on del Potro’s baseline. Or the backhand drive return that he hits so consistently at his opponent’s feet; I hadn’t seen him do it with that kind of accuracy since he drove Rafael Nadal crazy with it at the Australian Open. Or the squeaking, sliding, rubber-band-man gets that he made in each corner at 5-3 in the second-set tiebreaker. Del Potro fired everything he had and still couldn’t get the ball past Djokovic. After that point, the result was pretty much academic.
On the flip side, there are also Djokovic’s battles with self-doubt. He had one when he was broken at the start of the second set; for a couple of games, he couldn’t find the court. But he avoided going down a double break, which was key. Djokovic, even at his best, remains prone to losses in confidence, losses that he usually recovers from. More than anything else, they show what a mental tightrope walk a tennis match is even for its best players. Djokovic is smooth and sleek, and he can make the ridiculous look routine. Psychologically, though, it never looks effortless for him. When he loses, he can look relieved to be done with the struggle.
This Open will offer him a new mental challenge. It’s the first time in Djokovic’s career that neither Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer will join him in the semifinals of a Grand Slam. Djokovic was asked about that last night, and he said all the right things: “For me it’s the same, because I take it very seriously whoever I have to face in the next round.” 
Djokovic even felt the need to defend the guys who have made the semis, that they weren’t exactly slouches. “This is tennis,” Djokovic said, “Everybody is trying and has, I think, motivation more to perform their best when they’re in a big stage playing against the top players, the favorites. I still feel that we are having a really good tournament.”
Del Potro, along with every other pundit in town, called Djokovic the favorite to win the Open. How will he respond? Tonight he played like a man who had been freed up, a man, perhaps, who knew that his greatest rival, Federer, the man who had handled him easily at Wimbledon and in Cincy and who still carries an aura that can’t be ignored, was no longer in the draw. There will be no sixth straight match between Djokovic and Federer in New York. There will also be no repeat of his draining recent Grand Slam finals with Nadal.
Will that make Djokovic looser, or tighter this weekend? A little of both, probably, depending on the circumstances. It takes a lot to make up for the absences of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, but on Thursday night at least, that’s exactly what Novak Djokovic did.
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