Court Report: Federer and Djokovic advance, with a potential quarterfinal meeting in sight
NEW YORK—Purely from a stylistic standpoint, there’s not much that separates Novak Djokovic, a 13-time Grand Slam champion, and Tennys Sandgren, the 61st-ranked player in the world. They both like to rally; they both like to counterpunch more than punch; they both go to the drop shot on a regular basis; they both have fluid two-handed backhands; they both hit most of their winning shots with their forehands; they both have wheels.
But it’s just type of similarity that allows us to see what makes Djokovic special under the surface. That’s what happened in his 6-1, 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-2 win on Thursday night.
Tactically, Djokovic had to be patient and clever enough to beat Sandgren at his own game. Physically, he had to be sharp enough to keep getting one more ball back than the American for as long as it took. And it took two hours and 46 minutes on a still-humid New York evening.
Djokovic’s most notable tactic was a simple but effective rally variation. He began by sending a ball or two into Sandgren’s backhand side, and waiting for a forehand. When he got one, Sandgren would inevitably move to cover the open space crosscourt. At that point, Djokovic would change the pattern by hitting his forehand with a little extra pace back down the line. Wrong-footed, Sandgren was often caught in an awkward position, and forced into a backhand error. That may sound rudimentary, but it was enough to elicit all the errors Djokovic needed for a service break.
Sandgren’s first answer was to go to the drop shot. Too often, it turned out, because all it did was allow Djokovic to show off his physical skills and superior speed. Many of Sandgren’s drops were well-disguised and well-measured, but Djokovic chased virtually every one of them down, and came up with a creative response each time. A re-drop, a push forehand down the line, a crosscourt flick: he made them all work, and made Sandgren shake his head in frustration each time.
But Sandgren has shots, and he eventually loosened up enough to use them. He can serve 130, and when he times his ground strokes, they typically don’t come back. His best asset is his ability to suddenly up the pace on his forehand in the middle of a rally. Once he relaxed in the third set, and saved a match point with a forehand that landed smack on the sideline, Sandgren took over the rallies. Now it was Djokovic who was shaking his head and talking to himself.
Once the fourth set began, though, Sandgren’s game back to earth, and Djokovic’s rose to the occasion. Djokovic finished with a fairly clean 31 winners and 30 errors, while Sandgren went big—and eventually went home—with 11 aces, 44 winners, and 51 errors.
“I played well for two and a half sets,” Djokovic said, “and then I lost it mentally.”
If he’s going to lose it, he might as well lose it in the second round. Later on, against higher-ranked opponents, he might not have a chance to find it again.
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