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Djokovic Classic Sets Up Epic Showdown

NEW YORK - It lasted 21 minutes. There were 12 deuces, five break points and seven game points. And it kept the crowd in a state of suspended disbelief for the duration.

At 1-1 in the fifth set of a superb US Open semifinal encounter between the heavily-favored and No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic against the late-blooming 28-year-old Stan Wawrinka, the duo staged a tense, riveting and altogether unbelievable game. It was itself a self-contained novella housed within the weighty tome of this match.

Finally, on the 30th point of the game, Djokovic netted a forehand and just like that it appeared to nearly all in attendance that Wawrinka would go on and record the extraordinary upset. The momentum, it seemed to all, was clearly on his side.

But then something somewhat unexpected happened; instead of appearing downcast and dejected after squandering so many break points (five), Djokovic dominated on his next service game and with that, he reset the rhythm of the match.

So often, after a player loses so many break opportunities, he is more vulnerable on his own serve as he rues the wasted chances. Yet Djokovic played a flawless service game and Wawrinka was the one who seemed out of gas and he gave Djokovic little resistance. Just like that, the glory of outlasting Djokovic in that epic game seemed a distant memory.

Wawrinka was promptly broken in his next service game and the match was, for all intents and purposes, over. The final score was 2-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. To show just how close it was, both players won 165 points. (Wawrinka was also treated for a leg injury in the fourth set that may have contributed to his defeat though he didn’t use it as an excuse afterwards).

The match also gave the tournament its first truly memorable moment on the men’s side. It had been a decidedly lackluster fortnight up to now. Part of the reason is that the top two players have separated themselves from the rest that some drama is drained in the earlier rounds – with the plus side being an exciting final. 

Had Wawrinka won the match, that third game in the fifth set would be committed to immortality, lingering in the collective memory of tennis fans. But it was not to be and Djokovic now moves on to his fourth consecutive US Open final – fifth overall – and the tennis world will have the only matchup in the final that truly matters: Djokovic v. Nadal on late Monday afternoon. It will be the 37th meeting in their storied rivalry – no players in the Open era have faced each other more.

For the record, it should be stated that Wawrinka generally outplayed Djokovic on this day, as he was the more aggressive player. He seemed to have a more focused game plan and he refused to succumb to the psychological advantage that the top player in the world always has.

Wawrinka played nearly flawless tennis for the first set and a half, routinely striking vicious backhands down the line to end points, in much the same fashion he did against Andy Murray. And the second-ranked player in Switzerland (some guy named Roger is the top Swiss player) raced out to a break lead in the second set, leading 4-2 and on the cusp of going up two sets to none.

However, there was one glaring problem that plagued Wawrinka all afternoon and it likely cost him the match - his serve. And it got worse as the match went on. Serving at a woeful 50 percent first-serve rate for the match is not going to get it done against Djokovic, who is clearly the best returner in the men’s game. The poor serving by Wawrinka serves to reinforce just how well he played otherwise.

Indeed, if Wawrinka had served better in the second set and secured his break, he likely would have won the match.

Then again, Djokovic has a way of turning matches around in stunning ways that defy rationale. The legend of Novak the comeback artist was born in 2010 at the US Open when he fought off match points against Roger Federer. In the 2011 US Open Djokovic was down 15-40 with Federer serving for the match and he proceeded to hit two scorching winning returns and drove a stake through Federer’s heart. In the Australian Open in 2012, Djokovic was down 4-2 in the fifth set to Nadal but again came back to win that match, the longest Grand Slam final ever played.

In short, what makes Djokovic so intimidating is not particular strokes – though he obviously has overpowering shots - but his relentless style which never allows his foes to breathe easily. The only player who can compete with Djokovic on that level is Nadal.

For Wawrinka, it was the tournament of his life. In addition to obliterating Murray in straight sets in the quarters, Wawrinka also defeated fifth-seeded Tomas Berdych in the fourth round.

But the soft-spoken and surely heartbroken Wawrinka must be thinking to himself – why couldn’t I hit just a few more first serves in play?

Nadal defeats Gasquet: Nadal’s victory over his good friend Richard Gasquet was a workmanlike effort in tough, windy conditions at Arthur Ashe Stadium, 6-4, 7-6, 6-3. Gasquet did accomplish something noteworthy – he broke Nadal’s serve. This interrupted a streak of 88 consecutive service games won by Nadal, stretching back to the semifinal round of the Cincinnati Masters. 

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides occasional commentary for RealClearSports. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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