NEW YORK—For two sets, it looked as if the U.S. Open’s last night session of 2013 would do what most of the others had done: Put us straight to sleep. Novak Djokovic broke Mikhail Youzhny in his opening service game and was up 3-0 in a matter of minutes. If you had been watching the evening matches for the previous 10 days, you were probably hit with a strong sense of déjà vu. It appeared that we had another blowout on our hands.
Over the next set and a half, Youzhny avoided taking an official beatdown, but he didn’t do anything to make the match competitive, either. Djokovic served out the first set and broke early in the second. As usual, he was ultra-solid, and better in each facet of the game: movement, returns, consistency, defense, point construction. He was the one standing in the middle of the court; Youzhny was the one moving side to side. Here and there, the two players jarred us awake with a side-to-side, slide-to-slide rally, but the crowd was generally quiet and the mood one of inevitability.
But if Youzhny was cowed by the court at first—he hadn’t played a night session here in three years—he’s too fiery a character not to make at least one run. It came in the third set. Djokovic opened the door at 1-2, when he played a loose game and was broken. Youzhny came to life and was boosted by a crowd that wanted to see a fight. For the rest of the set, the Russian was the one standing in, and Djokovic was the one doing the scrambling. Djokovic broke back for 3-4, but he played another poor service game—this time he was tight, rather than loose—and was broken again, on a double fault. Youzhny closed the door and the set one game later.
In reality, though, the door was shutting on the Russian; it was the last game he would win. Djokovic turned the match back around with Youzhny serving at 0-1. Here you could see the value of the Serb's famous return skills. He didn’t give Youzhny any easy points, and as the game progressed, his returns became more penetrating. He broke with a deep backhand down the middle that Youzhny couldn’t handle. Djokovic’s returns, his ability to make his opponent work for every point on both sides of the court, proved to be a momentum stopper.
From there, Nole closed out a 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-0 win. Down the stretch, he yelled and fist-pumped and exhorted himself as much as ever, and he began to open up the court more than he had all night—Djokovic’s error count, 45, was high, and he faced 10 break points, but he’ll be happy with that final set and the way he competed. The exclamation point came in the final game, when Djokovic, in a pretty decent imitation of another U.S. Open champ, Pete Sampras, executed a rare jumping smash. He might want to try that on every overhead, because this was one of his most authoritative.
It’s all familiar territory for Djokovic, who is into his 14th straight Grand Slam semifinal, and seventh straight at Flushing Meadows. He’ll play Stan Wawrinka next. Their last match, at the Australian Open in January, may have been the year’s best so far. The rematch shouldn’t be a snoozer, either.
IBM Stat of the Match: Tennis' returner extraordinaire made Youzhny pay on first and second serves. The Russian won just 53 percent of his first-serve points, and 52 percent of second-serve points.
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