NEW YORK—“What’s your name? Who’s your daddy?” the Zombies sang over the loudspeakers as Novak Djokovic and Philipp Kohlschreiber warmed up in Louis Armstrong Stadium. Was this a message to Kohlschreiber? Djokovic has basically owned the German, having won four of their previous five matches. Or was the band's name an ominous reference to what a tennis player could turn into on a painfully humid Labor Day like this one?
It could have been a little bit of both, because Djokovic, despite turning red-faced and at times trudging wearily in the heat, still put the world No. 25 away in straight sets, 6-1, 7-5, 6-4, to pass his first real test of the tournament. The precedents for an upset were in place: Djokovic’s lone loss to Kohlschreiber had come on a day much like this one at Roland Garros in 2009; and the match today was help on the Open’s second show court, the same stadium where Roger Federer was eliminated in this round last year.
Djokovic moved quickly to dispel any signs or thoughts of danger. He came out moving aggressively and looking for forehands, and he broke his opponent in his first service game. Kohlschreiber, by contrast, was in disarray to start. In trying to get on top of rallies, he misfired wildly. As the errors mounted, the German began muttering; the low moment for him came when Djokovic hit two forehand winners and a kick-serve ace to hold for 5-0.
If this match had had a turning point, it would have come in the first game of the second set. Djokovic, still at ease, earned two break points, but squandered them by missing two second-serve service returns. When Kohlschreiber held with a smash, the audience roared. He had finally found his range. The match would be a battle the rest of the way.
But it would never turn. That’s because of one shot: Serving at 4-5 in the second, Djokovic faced set point after a big Kohlschreiber return. The German pressed the issue again in the next rally, eventually reaching the net, where he knocked a solid backhand volley into the open court. Solid against anyone but Novak Djokovic, that is. Nole tracked the ball down and whipped a forehand pass crosscourt for a winner.
He didn’t stop there. Djokovic flapped his arms to bring the crowd to its feet and cupped his ear so he could hear them make some more noise. He might want to try the move more often. Suddenly energized, Djokovic would hold, break, hold again for the set, break to start the third, and hold for 2-0.
From there, though, Djokovic’s energy began to flag. His shoulders slumped and he walked slowly enough that you could hear the soles of his sneakers scrape the DecoTurf. But he kept making enough shots to keep his nose ahead, and Kohlschreiber kept missing enough to stay a nose behind. Kohlschreiber, determined to go big, connected on some spectacular winners, but inevitably followed them with high-risk errors. Djokovic made the margins too small for him.
There was one moment of danger left, but Djokovic’s defense saw him through it again. Serving for the match at 5-4, 15-15, he scrambled behind the baseline and threw up two lobs; on his second smash, Kohlschreiber again cut the margin too fine and sent the ball wide. Djokovic, after one last long rally, held to advance to his 22nd straight Grand Slam quarterfinal. He has yet to lose a set at Flushing Meadows.
“The match could have gone either way,” Djokovic said afterward, referring to the set point he saved in the second. Overall, though, it was a solid and gritty outing for the No. 1 seed. He hit 34 winners, made 19 errors, didn’t face a break point, and used his kick serve well at crucial moments. He’ll need to be that good, and maybe a little better, in his next match, which will come against either Andy Murray or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.