The description fit. Wawrinka, energized by having the full weight and noise of a New York crowd behind him, came out with all guns blazing, and after a few early misfires, quickly locked in on his targets. Down break point at 3-2 in the first set, he hit three aces. At 4-3, he hit a 135-m.p.h. ace to hold. At 5-4 he ended a long back-and-forth rally with a fearsome forehand winner and cupped his hand to his ear. The audience roared on cue.
In the second set, Wawrinka misfired often enough to fall behind a break. When Djokovic went up 4-2, it appeared that the natural order of things had been restored, and that we were in for another see-saw, wee-hour marathon between these two.
Instead, Wawrinka worked himself back into a groove, and Djokovic, who looked constrained and bottled-up all evening, went back into his shell. Wawrinka broke back at 2-4 when Djokovic missed a forehand after another long rally. Wawrinka swaggered to the sideline, Djokovic hung his head, and the momentum swung permanently to the Swiss. By the end of the set, he was hitting both of his ground strokes as cleanly as he has since knee surgery derailed his career at the end of 2017. At 6-5, when his passing shots proved too hot for Djokovic to handle, Wawrinka had a two-set lead.
A few minutes later, he had the match. Djokovic’s left shoulder had been bothering him all tournament, and he had it rubbed down on the changeover between sets. But it wasn’t enough. The injury, a pumped-up opponent who once again had saved his best tennis for him, and a boisterous crowd that once again chose to back his opponent as if he were playing Davis Cup for them: It added up to a night to forget for Djokovic.
To add insult to literal injury, he was also booed as he left the court. Last year Djokovic walked off a winner here; this year he walked off flashing a sarcastic thumbs up to the audience. Tennis fans are obviously free to like whoever they want; it’s just a shame so many of them can’t bring themselves to like a player as accomplished as Djokovic. The irony is, if he had lasted one more round, he might have had a chance to play the crowd favorite for once, when he faced New York’s villain du jour, Daniil Medvedev.
“The pain was constant for three weeks now,” Djokovic said afterward, when he was asked why he had decided to retire. “You just know when you know, I guess, when you feel like you’re not able to hit the shot anymore.”
“I’m sorry for the crowd. Obviously they came to see a full match, and just wasn’t to be. That’s all it is. A lot of people didn’t know what’s happening, so you cannot blame them. It is what it is.”
Whatever the audience thought of him tonight, Djokovic has had an amazing run of consistency here: This will be the first time since 2006 that he won’t reach the semifinals at the Open.
Where does that leave the draw as we enter the tournament’s second week and close in on the quarterfinals? For every other player in the draw, life just got a lot more interesting. Wawrinka, champion here in 2016, has to be considered a contender. So does the man he’ll play on Tuesday, the aforementioned bad guy, Medvedev. He may be on the best run of long-term form of anyone in the event, and he seems to be able to find a solution to any problem right now—cramps, a hostile crowd, a hot opponent.
And then there’s the old duo, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who play Grigor Dimitrov and Marin Cilic, respectively. As well as Wawrinka and Medvedev are playing, Rafa and Roger have to be favored to finally meet in New York, in the final. With Djokovic’s loss, each has a chance to leave him a little farther behind in the Slam chase.
Djokovic said he’s in “the midst of an unfortunate situation, and I have to suffer the consequences of that.” He said he’ll get more tests done on his shoulder, but he ended up sounding upbeat about the rest of the season.
“I actually like my chances playing in Asia,” he said. “And also indoor season, I play historically well in those last couple months of the year.”
“It’s a long road ahead hopefully for me. I hope I can play many more years. I’m planning to.”
Two out of four Slams in 2019 ain’t bad. Even after tonight’s disappointment, there will be plenty more to come.
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