NEW YORK—The last time Benjamin Becker set foot on Arthur Ashe Stadium, in 2006, he sent Andre Agassi into retirement. Flash forward seven years later and there he was again, now aged 32, stepping out on a brilliant and bright August afternoon, this time against world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
Becker's storybook memory of Ashe Stadium appeared to serve him well as he came out utterly at ease, going toe-to-toe with Djokovic, keeping the ball admirably deep and outlasting the top seed in a marathon early rally when the Serb sliced a drop shot wide. It set the tone for the rest of the set as the two combatants, worlds apart by any measure of success, seemed evenly matched.
This was also due to Djokovic, who came out flat and sloppy, poking volleys wide and committing uncharacteristic unforced errors from the backcourt. At 4-all, the six-time Grand Slam champion all but gift-wrapped a break for the 87th-ranked German, double-faulting at 30-all, then hitting the third ball of the break point long.
As the players, both in white shirts and dark shorts, approached their chairs for the changeover, it seemed like we might be treated to a variation of Freaky Friday, the old body-switching movie. Was Becker about to become one of those tour curiosities, a virtual unknown who periodically takes out a legend on Arthur Ashe Stadium?
It seemed possible if not plausible. But confidence is a volatile commodity, and the next several minutes re-told a story that tennis fans know all too well. After Becker fought off a break point, he volleyed a ball away to bring up set point, but squandered it with a forehand into the net. He earned another set point, but flubbed it with a wide backhand. He then put a volley long, followed by a netted backhand, to hand back the break.
Two holds later, the tiebreaker came, but Becker's collapsed confidence was palpable by then and he imploded, sending up a handful of unforced errors that sent Djokovic running into the second set with momentum.
From there, the outcome was all but assured as evidenced by Djokovic's breaking Becker in the first game of the second set. He broke Becker three more times for a 7-6 (2), 6-2, 6-2 win. (In his on-court interview, Djokovic acknowledged that Becker should have won the first set.)
From there, Djokovic didn't seem to swell with confidence so much as Becker utterly lost his, spraying balls left and right, short and long. It was too bad: Becker he came to play today, and who knows what sort of cliffhanger might have followed had he converted one of those two set points.
As for Djokovic, who hasn't won a tournament since Monte Carlo, it's tough to find a positive in this match other than the outcome. With Nadal, Murray, and—yes—Federer playing top-flight tennis, and guys like Del Potro and Haas, who have either beaten him or played him close thus year, lurking in his side of the draw before the semifinals, this is a performance he needs to put behind him, and fast. The tournament is about to round the corner into week two; the days of relying on an opponent coming back down to earth are over.
IBM Stat of the Match: Djokovic won five of 14 break points, while Becker succeeded on his lone opportunity—a paltry number of opportunitied for the underdog and a sad conversion rate for the top seed speak to the lackluster play both exhibited today.
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