NEW YORK – After five matches under Grand Slam stress and through some of the toughest playing conditions in recent memory, four were left on Friday at the US Open.
Given what had come before, it probably wasn’t a shock that the best tennis in the men’s event this year may have already been played.
But maybe not.
There’s one more to go.
Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro will meet in Sunday’s men’s singles final. And you can only hope that it will be a compelling, close contest after the semifinals were anything but.
The first to fall was the eldest of the quartet, 32-year-old Rafael Nadal.
The defending champion retired after del Potro won the first two sets, as his right knee again prevented him from showing his best.
He first felt it at 2-2 in the first set.
Tendonitis, Chapter 15
“The pain on the knee is always very similar … The problem is this time was something little bit more aggressive because was in one movement. Was not something progressive,” he said.
Nadal had it flare up in the early rounds, even having the knee wrapped during his third-round match. But it responded to treatment – until it didn’t.
It’s still the same patellar tendinitis. And Nadal, who is scheduled to play the Davis Cup semifinals next weekend, said it’s not a matter of three weeks – or six months. It’s about judging how much pain he’s willing to play with, as the tendonitis eventually responds to treatment.
Let’s just say, he knows the drill by now.
Del Potro is into his first US Open final since he won it all the way back in 2009. It is the biggest gap between Slam finals in the Open era. And the shortened match was a blessing in the sense that he won’t be going into it having had to survive a marathon in the semis.
“I cannot believe that I will have a chance to play another Grand Slam finals in here, which is my favorite tournament. So it would be special to me. Would be a big challenge, as well, because I’ve been fighting with many, many problems to get in this moment,” del Potro said.
“It will be a difficult match, of course. But anyway, I think I’ve been doing a good tournament. And in the finals, anything can happen. If I win, great. If not, I been playing a great tournament and I will be happy anyways.”
Tired Nishikori no match
Djokovic dropped a set in each of his first two rounds and was one of the players who struggled with the unbreathable conditions inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. But he has been on a major roll since then.
He defeated No. 26 Richard Gasquet, unseeded Joao Sousa and John Millman and No. 21 Nishikori in straight sets through his next four rounds.
The matchup with Nishikori has always been a favorable one for him. Whatever Nishikori does well, Djokovic does more of, and better.
The Serb now has won their last 14 completed meetings, including a four-setter in the quarterfinals on his way to the Wimbledon title in July.
“I knew that coming into the match if I managed to sustain that speed of his shots, so to say, the game style, that I’ll have my chance kind of to break through and to make him feel uncomfortable and start making errors. That’s what happened,” said Djokovic, who called the match “really, really good” from his side.
“I thought in the important moments I came up with some good second serves, some good first serves. And I was returning well. I was putting constantly pressure on him, trying to move him around the court, take away the rhythm from him, not give him the same look always.”
It didn’t help Nishikori that he appeared to tweak his leg or knee early on, on a fairly harmless looking trip to the net. Nishikori attributed that misstep to cumulative fatigue. The 28-year-old also had a draining five-set win over Marin Cilic in the previous round to recover from.
But when Djokovic is playing as well as he has been in New York since those early minor bumps, there isn’t much anyone can do to derail him. The 31-year-old was literally firing on every single cylinder he had on Friday night.
“He was playing very solid everything: serve, return, groundstrokes. He was playing aggressive. Yeah, I didn’t have (a lot of) energy to stay with him. He was hitting, you know, side to side. Yeah, wasn’t easy to stay with him tonight,” Nishikori said.
“I think I was just tired from last couple matches. I was try to give 100 per cent, but he was playing very solid. Maybe if he wasn’t Novak, I might have chance to play little better. But he was, you know, playing great tennis today. Yeah, very credit to him.”
Djokovic in rare US Open territory
With the win, Djokovic jumps into a tie with Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl as he prepares to play his eighth US Open men’s singles final. Eight is tops in the open era; Jimmy Connors and Roger Federer have made seven finals.
He also officially qualified for the ATP Tour Finals. Federer also qualified; the two join Nadal.
Djokovic stood at No. 76 in the race to London before Indian Wells, No. 25 before the French Open. If he wins on Sunday, he’ll be No. 2 behind Nadal. if he loses, he’ll be No. 3, just 65 points behind del Potro.
“Probably seeing the results, consistency of the results I’ve had here, probably has been my most successful Grand Slam. Of course, I won the Australian Open six times, never lost finals there. But I think I’ve played more than 10 semifinals here. It’s definitely one of my favorite tournaments to play because of the conditions and because of the fact that I’ve played so well in each year that I keep on coming back,” Djokovic said.
“I know that I feel very comfortable here. It just allows me to feel more comfortable playing, starting the tournament and going through it. Yeah, I mean, I think I have two finals won and five losses. But, you know, hopefully I can get one better in few days.”