In a dramatic three-hour performance, Novak Djokovic earned a place in the Western & Southern final with a 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (0) win over Roberto Bautista Agut. The world No. 1 kept his 2020 win streak alive at 22, but it's unclear at what physical cost as the US Open looms on the horizon.
"Very strange match I must say," Djokovic said on court (he wouldn't come to press afterwards as recommended by the medical team). "I don't know how I won it, to be honest. He was the better player. I just didn’t feel good on the court at all in any aspect of my game and of just the body, but somehow I managed to pull this one through."
Initially, he was battling the same neck injury that forced him to withdraw from the doubles event. With both players struggling to hold serve in the first set, neither was playing their best. During the set changeover, Djokovic would don a mask and face shield and lay out on the floor with a trainer aggressively working on his neck.
The physical pains and weirdness didn't stop there. In the latter parts of the match, Djokovic was repeatedly bent over with his face in a towel and spent changeovers grabbing at his stomach. He would look completely depleted, but then dig deep and pull out some vintage Djokovic grit and court coverage.
In the second set, the Serbian raced out to a 4-1 lead. When it dissipated and Agut broke back for 4-3, Djokovic flailed to the deck to spread out like a star fish. At 4-4, 30-all, Agut had a look at running away with the match, but Djokovic held for 5-4 and the referee Lars Graff had the roof closed ahead of expected rain. The Spaniard was completely against the decision, while Djokovic took the opportunity to seek more treatment off the court. Agut's rhythm was broken and so was his serve.
"It was the third time we stop the rhythm in the match," Agut said. "One at toilet break and a physio break and then a roof break. So the roof break could wait a little bit to finish the set, because to close the roof, it's five minutes. I totally disagree with the decision [Graff] took."
Ahead of the tournament Andy Murray did an Instagram Q&A and named Agut as the most underrated player on the ATP tour. Murray is absolutely correct in that pick as Agut has been near flawless this week with wins over Richard Gasquet, Karen Khachanov and defending champion Daniil Medvedev. By any stretch, the world No. 12 should have closed out the win on Friday multiple times.
"It's a balance between the patience and kind of controlling the aggressivity," Djokovic said of his strategy. "When you have a chance you have to not only move him around left and right but forwards and backwards. Kind of mix up in the pace and put a lot of variation in the game. He’s a very consistent player."
While Agut had a 3-8 losing record to Djokovic going into Friday’s semifinal, all three of those wins came on hard courts including two in 2019 (in Miami and Doha). Djokovic might have the best backhand on the tour, but Agut is right there with him in terms of court coverage and stamina, and he was far more physically energetic in the muggy (and empty) Louis Armstrong Stadium.
The third set began with more breaks of serve early, with Djokovic jumping ahead 5-2. It was Agut's turn to dig deep and he did, reeling off four straight games to serve for the match at 6-5. The chaos continued with Djokovic breaking right back to force the tiebreak and then, miraculously winning seven points in a row.
The marathon was over but Djokovic barely had any energy left for his post-match celebration ritual—though he did do it. He'll face Milos Raonic in Saturday's final. While Djokovic has got a perfect 10-0 record against the Canadian, Raonic spent half as much time on court on Friday winning his semifinal over Stefanos Tsitsipas.