NEW YORK—Old rivals reunited beneath the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium, but after splitting sets, Novak Djokovic was in no mood to share space with his former practice partner.
Seizing control of the center of the court, Djokovic sapped the strength from Andy Murray's legs and squeezed errors from his racquet. In a physical rematch of the 2012 U.S. Open final, Djokovic defeated Murray, 7-6 (1), 6-7 (1), 6-2, 6-4, to advance to his eighth straight U.S. Open semifinal.
This highly-anticipated clash did not sustain the high quality or drama of Murray's five-set victory over Djokovic two years earlier. Both men were jittery at the outset and both played patches of erratic tennis, fighting themselves as well as each other. They combined for 26 break points and 113 unforced errors, but the world No. 1 stayed calm, despite blowing a break-of-serve lead twice in the second set, and played with more precision and ambition to beat Murray for the fifth time in their last six meetings.
In a skittish start, Djokovic sailed a forehand to drop serve in the opening game. Murray reciprocated, netting a rally forehand to give back the break. Skidding into a retrieval off a drop volley, Djokovic poked a forehand pass, breaking for 3-1.
It seemed that the top seed had command, but he lost his focus and range. Hitting a wild forehand wide, followed by a netted backhand, Djokovic played a horrific four-error game to donate the break back. Djokovic, who had faced at least one break point in his first five service games, finally delivered a stress-free hold for 6-5.
After a hold to force a tiebreaker, Murray double-faulted to gift the mini-break and a 2-0 lead to Djokovic. Nole never looked back, smacking a serve winner wide to seize an uneven 73-minute opening set.
Slow starts have been fatal for Murray in this match-up: He held an 0-8 record when losing the first set to Djokovic, and found himself forced to make up ground again. Djokovic at love, then exploited a miserable game from Murray, who netted successive shots to gift the break and a 2-1 lead. Djokovic backed up the break at 15, but his concentration cracked again.
Striking with more sting, Murray reeled off eight of the next nine points to draw level at 3-3. But in pushing Murray to a spinning retrieval, the Serb slammed a forehand winner in the next game, throwing a huge fist pump after breaking for 4-3 that seemed to leave the Scot reeling.
Instead, Murray started to thump his flatter forehand with more vigor. He cracked an inside-out forehand winner to break back for 4-4. Surging out to a 4-0 lead in the evening's second tiebreaker, Murray snatched a second set that seemed firmly in Djokovic's control just 20 minutes earlier.
Shaking off the lost lead, Djokovic went right back to work attacking Murray's forehand—forcing his opponent to beat him with his least stable shot—in breaking for a 3-1 advantage in the third. This time, the 2011 champion made the lead stand. Fending off a break point by withstanding a draining 27-shot rally, Djokovic dug out a demanding hold for 4-1 that left Murray muttering in derision during the changeover. The 2012 Wimbledon champion didn't put up much resistance for the rest of the set.
An increasingly stiff-legged Murray, apparently suffering from lower back spasms, began losing the sting on his serve and forehand in the fourth set. Shuffling around the court between points with hunched shoulders, Murray looked like a man playing on borrowed time. Djokovic denied a break point in the first game of the fourth set and then issued three straight love holds, ratcheting up the pressure Murray. He couldn't handle it.
The last game was anti-climactic—one fool in the crowd insisted on screaming just as Murray threw up his toss—and when Djokovic won an 18-shot rally for double match point, a spent Muzz was ready to go. He netted a backhand, concluding a three-hour and 32-minute match after 1 A.M. local time that wasn't transcendent tennis, but which sent Djokovic into his 17th Grand Slam semifinal in his last 18 major appearances.