NEW YORK—When Novak Djokovic was asked about his 20-1 night-match record on Arthur Ashe Stadium following his 6-3, 5-7, 6-2, 6-1 victory over Jerzy Janowicz, the Serb decided to wax poetic.

“Let me choose my words carefully,” Djokovic said. “I feel like when I step in here, it’s a dark tunnel. But there’s always a light.”

Djokovic’s flowery language was also an appropriate way to sum up this difficult opening-round test. For starters, Djokovic took an injury timeout after just five games, with the trainer working on his arm. The apparent injury didn’t hinder Djokovic for the remainder of the first set, but it resurfaced when Djokovic faced a set point in the second.

At 5-6, ad-out, Djokovic leapt forward to hit a second serve and labored more than he seems to in the entirety of his first-round matches at majors—typically one-sided routs. Not on Monday night, and the awkwardness of that shot was only surpassed by the forehand he sailed long on his very next shot. Janowicz, ranked 247th in the world, was now in a best-of-three-set match with the world No. 1.

Not at his best, Novak Djokovic overcomes injury scare—and Jerzy Janowicz—to advance at U.S. Open

Not at his best, Novak Djokovic overcomes injury scare—and Jerzy Janowicz—to advance at U.S. Open


But reports of Djokovic’s demise were greatly exaggerated, despite the lackluster second set in which he allowed Janowicz—a former Wimbledon semifinalist and Top 15 player, it must be said—to hold service games from 15-40 and 0-40. And despite a sullen disposition and a lack of cohesive play, Djokovic made sure that this first-round contest would not derail him the way it did at the Rio Olympics.

Djokovic remained coy when pressed about his discomfort after the match.

“I don’t think it’s necessary to talk about this now,” declared Djokovic. “I’m through. I’m taking it day by day. Let’s keep on moving.”

One constant that Djokovic could rely on during this uncertain evening was his opponent. Janowicz’s erratic play gave Djokovic ample opportunities to find his game, even if only for a few games at a time. Janowicz double-faulted 13 times, hit 59 unforced errors and, perhaps most notably, has a peculiar penchant for drop shots. Djokovic took advantage of enough such openings to prevail in 2:37, despite offering Janowicz 12 break points. (He converted just two.)

“It was overall a good performance,” said Djokovic. “Jerzy’s unpredictable. He can serve at over 140 m.p.h. The only thing you can do when the ball’s coming at you at that speed is pray and get out of the way.”

It took a Djokovic rendition of Phil Collins, who opened the evening’s roof-related festivities at Arthur Ashe Stadium with a short set, to see the first smile from the normally affable Serb. This might have been the only Djokovic match in which his stoic coach, Boris Becker, cracked more smiles.

Things looked dark out there for a while, but Djokovic nonetheless found the light.