By Jane Voigt
Novak Djokovic came out limp. Stanislaus Wawrinka stood tall. The match would not end that way.
The second-best Swiss player had absolutely nothing to lose today. He was playing in his first-ever major semifinal. He had gone farther in this Open than the guy whose shadow he has stood in for his entire career — Roger Federer.
If the match had been best-of-three sets, Wawrinka would be into his first slam final. The score after three was — 62 67(4) 63 — for Wawrinka. Instead, they went five and the match became a war of attrition. The U. S. Open had pulled off Super Saturday without having an official Super Saturday, which it eliminated this year for the first time.
Wawrinka’s littered the road with seeds on his way to today’s sixth round.
He drew Radek Stepanek in the first round. Stepanek was the heavy favorite, with a favorable 4-0 head-to-head record. But they had not met since 2009. That was a long time ago in Stan-the-Man land. He took out the Czech in straight sets. Wawrinka did the same against Ivo Karlovic, the player even Roger Federer never wants to see in his quarter. The six-ten Croatian served 50 aces in his two-rounds; Milos Raonic, who played four rounds, sits at the top of the ‘ace list’ with 104. That means Karlovic was on a par with the Canadian had he extended his stay in New York.
Stan struggled agains Marcos Baghdatis, but came out on top, then showed Tomas Berdych, who had not dropped a set, who was boss. That left Wawrinka face-to-face with Andy Murray, the defending champion.
Wawrinka left fans awed against Murray. The shot-making from the No. 9 seed was something for ESPN’s Sports Center top-ten countdown. The score exemplified the beat-down Murray got, as each set tumbled downward in games won: 64 63 62.
“I had the feeling that I was maybe in charge by playing much more better,” Wawrinka said after his victory over Murray. “I had the game in control, that I can choose whatever I want to do during all the matches.”
Stan continued on his trajectory in the first set against Djokovic. Wawrinka lassoed the Serbian into patterns and tactics, which he tied off to his benefit, continually suppressing Djokovic’s mind, and making him believe in the darkness of his day. That hope was not alive.
This was Novak Djokovic’s 14th straight major semifinal, which is second all-time. If he won the semifinal, he would enter his 4th consecutive U. S. Open and have a chance to win his second Open title. But after Wawrinka closed out the first set at 6-2, his chances diminished. His record in career Grand Slams is 21-25 after losing the first set, and 136-4 when he wins the first set.
But as tennis fans know, you can never count out Djokovic. He won the second set in a tiebreak, even though he incurred a code violation from Chair-umpire Enric Molina. “Code violation … coaching … warning, Djokovic.”
The third set went to Stan. The rallies shook the house, one with 35 rallies that the Swiss underdog won. One more set and the ‘w’ belonged to him.
Novak Djokovic slides into a forehand, during the first semifinal at The U. S. Open today in Flushing Meadows. He came from two sets down to win his fourth consecutive berth in the final of the U. S. Open. Photo credit tennisclix
But Wawrinka went off the rails right at the start of set four. He incurred a ball abuse code violation, then a racquet abuse point penalty. One more violation and he would lose a game. His emotional walk-about yanked him so far from his task at hand — winning the fourth and hopefully final set — that he could not steady his game.
His anger gave Djokovic a green light. He found his rhythm and ran down ball after ball. His unforced error count decreased as Wawrinka’s increased. Stan fell, too, stretching his right thigh and groin. He took a medical time out.
“At the end of the third set I start to feeling my right leg, and at that moment I knew I was going to be out of fuel if I had to play a long match and struggle a little bit against him,” Wawrinka said in his press conference.
Djokovic did not face one break point in the final two sets. He pushed Wawrinka back behind the baseline to the point where angles became winners.
“I had the feeling when I was still fit, when I was healthy I had the match in control,” Wawrinka said. “I think I was playing better than him. I was doing much more things than him.”
Djokovic proved himself stronger physically and mentally with this victory — 26 76(4) 36 63 64. It was his third 5-set semifinal match in a major this year.
The proof of his worth, to carry out the task of winning, came late which is his sine quo nom. It is also that of Rafael Nadal. They are more adept at the 5-set format toward the end of a major tournament because they have played more of them.
Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach, tweeted, “The game has become so physical because of slower surfaces that Rafa and Novak have such an advantage in 5 setters.”
Their seedings give them somewhat of an advantage, too. Djokovic’s draw was a walk in Central Park, especially after Juan Martin del Potro lost to Lleyton Hewitt.
Steve Tignor of tennis.com was accurate in his pre-tournament breakdown of the men’s draw. No matter who came through — the surprise player, which in this case is Wawrinka — he would have to face one of the Big Four. That was Wawrinka’s plight.
That the format was best-of-five sets also became his plight, but, at least, all 128 suffered equally. The ones who won their rounds in three sets were either smarter, better players, had lady-luck-of-the-draw in their corner, or had triple espressos on changeovers.
Wawrinka deservedly got a standing ovation before answering questions on court. His eyes were even a bit watery, perhaps with tears. No need for this man to cry, though.
“I gave everything. It was an amazing experience,” he told fans.