Before Novak Djokovic made his Arthur Ashe Stadium entrance on Friday night for his third-round encounter with Denis Kudla, the defending US Open champion stopped for a standard pre-match interview in the player tunnel.
ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi inquired about the status of the Serbian’s left shoulder, which flared up 48 hours earlier on the very court he was about to retake.
Djokovic sharply responded, “I’m here. Let’s play.”
There were signs of the injury issue being present early in the match: Djokovic hit two-handed topspin backhands, one of most reliable weapons, uncharacteristically long. He retreated to taking his guiding arm off the racquet by cutting an abnormal number of slices. Despite those noticeable differences, Djokovic still stepped onto the grand stage with the same passion, robust defense, and poise under pressure viewers have grown to expect from the world No. 1.
The top seed made necessary adjustments against Kudla, who brought his own court speed to engage in cat-and-mouse rallies. Djokovic ultimately found new gears when needed, fighting through the difficulties he was dealing with to defeat the American, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. He saved all seven break points he faced to knock out Kudla for the second straight Slam, having won, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2, in the second round of Wimbledon en route to his 15th major title.
The heat on Djokovic’s health will only turn up from here, as the 32-year-old set a mouthwatering clash with Stan Wawrinka. Djokovic has dominated their head-to-head series, owning a 19-5 record, but Wawrinka has managed to upstage the Serbian three times on his way to tasting Grand Slam glory: at the 2014 Australian Open and in two finals, the 2015 French Open and 2016 US Open—the last time they faced off.
On how he felt after Friday's win, Djokovic told Rinaldi, “I managed to play almost pain free. That’s a big improvement from the last match. I didn’t know how my body would react. I’m just glad."
Djokovic will likely need his sturdy two-handed backhand to counter the aggressive style from the Swiss. Wawrinka possesses a potent one-hander, and is equally as comfortable going toe-to-toe on the forehand wing. The world No. 24 has shown he's capable of catching fire in latter stages of tournaments by generating tremendous pace to overpower opposition, but can also go off the rails in finding the court. A consistent performer at Flushing Meadows with nine week-two showings, Wawrinka's frequency of backhand exchanges with Djokovic will surely be a significant area to monitor.
Wake up every morning with Tennis Channel Live at the US Open, starting at 8 a.m. ET. For three hours leading up to the start of play, Tennis Channel's team will break down upcoming matches, review tournament storylines and focus on everything Flushing Meadows.
Tennis Channel's encore, all-night match coverage will begin every evening at 11 p.m. ET, with the exception of earlier starts on Saturday and Sunday of championship weekend.