Novak Djokovic defeats Matteo Berrettini in four sets to reach semifinals of US Open

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USA TODAY 09 September, 2021 - 01:22am 6 views

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Djokovic beat Matteo Berrettini 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3, moving two victories from becoming the first man to win all four majors in the same year since Rod Laver in 1969. syracuse.comUS Open men’s semifinals: Time, TV channel, live stream, how to watch Djokovic vs. Zverev & Auger-Aliassime v

In pursuit of a calendar-year Grand Slam, a feat last accomplished by Rod Laver in 1969, Novak Djokovic defeats Matteo Berrettini, on to semifinals.

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Novak Djokovic won at Wimbledon. His 20th Grand Slam title tied him with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal atop the all-time list. USA TODAY

NEW YORK — Nobody knows better than Matteo Berrettini that winning the first set against Novak Djokovic doesn’t mean much. 

But even armed with his first-hand experience in the Wimbledon final, when just a slight letdown opened the door for a Djokovic onslaught, Berrettini couldn’t stop history from repeating itself Wednesday night in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. He couldn’t stop history, period. 

Berrettini, the eighth-ranked player in the world, has been little more than a traffic cone this year for Djokovic on his way to a potential calendar Grand Slam — worthy enough to be paid attention to, but easy enough to navigate around. For the third straight major, Djokovic faced a bit of trouble against the big-hitting Italian but ultimately solved him, this time winning 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3. 

"Best three sets I've played - second, third and fourth - in the tournament so far," Djokovic said. "I think I managed to raise the level of my tennis. When I dropped the first set, I just went to a different level and I stayed there till the last point. That's something that definitely encourages me and gives me a lot of confidence."

The win propels Djokovic into the semifinals, where he’s just two wins away from matching a feat last accomplished by Rod Laver in 1969 of winning all four Slams in the same year and also snatching the all-time major record of 21, which is currently shared with his contemporaries Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Waiting for him in the semifinals is Alexander Zverev, the 24-year old German who came within a couple points of winning the U.S. Open a year ago and defeated Djokovic this summer in the semifinals of the Tokyo Olympics.

“Against him you prepare that you have to play the best match that you can,” Zverev said Wednesday after advancing to the semifinals with a straight sets win over South Africa’s Lloyd Harris. “You have to be perfect, otherwise you will not win. Most of the time you can't be perfect. That's why most of the time people lose to him.”

For 1 hour, 17 minutes, Berrettini was perfect enough with his big serve-big forehand combination to give himself a chance. After breaking at 5-5 with a scorching cross-court passing shot, Berrettini drew four unforced errors from Djokovic in a tight service game to wrap up the first set.

It was the third match in a row at this tournament and ninth time this year in the Grand Slams that Djokovic has started from behind, including when Berrettini won the first set of the Wimbledon final in a tiebreaker. But all of those matches have followed a familiar pattern, with Djokovic immediately raising the level of his game and figuring out how to break his opponent down.

"I was feeling good, playing good," Berrettini said. "Just he has this ability - and probably that's why he's the best ever - just to step up his game, his level all the time. Doesn't matter how well I play, he just plays better. He starts to return better, to serve better. Just couldn't step up like he did. He deserved to win."

Prior to Wednesday’s match, Djokovic called Berrettini the “hammer of tennis,” and acknowledged that if he served well it would be a difficult match. But Djokovic only needs the slightest of openings to start finding weaknesses. When those 130 mile per hour missiles stopped finding the service box with the same frequency as they did in the first set, it allowed Djokovic to go to work on Berrettini’s backhand, a shot he can only use really to neutralize rallies in hopes of eventually setting up a forehand.

Without the ability to damage Djokovic at all from the backhand wing either with his slice or his two-hander, Berrettini was playing in quicksand. And as Djokovic got more comfortable getting Berrettini’s big serves back in play — he ended up winning 40% of the points when he had to return a first serve — the match devolved quickly into a highlight reel of passing shots and flicked winners that at times made the Italian look silly. By the end, he seemed to be commanding the ball at will, if only to give him the opportunity to flex his muscles and exhort the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd into a reaction on demand. 

"I know what my strengths are. I stick to them," Djokovic said. "I've worked over the years to perfect my game so that my game can have literally no flaws. Every player has some weaknesses in his game. There's always something you can improve. I want to have as complete of an all-around game as I possibly can so that when I'm playing someone I can adjust on any surface, I can come up with different styles of play, I can tactically implement the game that I need for that particular match in order to win."

It’s likely that Djokovic’s two toughest matches are still ahead in Zverev and potentially No. 2 Daniil Medvedev in the final. To stop Djokovic in any big match, the conventional wisdom is that it’s necessary to get the lead and play from ahead.

Though it’s probably better than the alternative, winning a first set from Djokovic hasn’t proven to be particularly problematic for him. In this tournament, it means he’s just getting warmed up.

"With him, it looks like he doesn't care," Berrettini said. "Actually he takes energy from that set that he lost. He's used to it. There is not a lot you can do."

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Jenson Brooksby | Top 5 Points | 2021 US Open

US Open Tennis Championships 10 September, 2021 - 12:30pm

Novak Djokovic Is Ready For Another Fight

The New York Times 10 September, 2021 - 09:00am

As he closes in on a rare calendar-year Grand Slam, Novak Djokovic has mastered readying himself for tennis as hand-to-hand combat.

This, invariably, is Novak Djokovic, late in the evening, often well past midnight, when another day of work is finally done, when the arena has emptied and he sits in front of a microphone, his piercing eyes an odd combination of glazed and steely, and he tries to put into words what he has just endured.

To so many tennis players, their game exists as a kind of art. Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, the world’s third-ranked player, talks about tennis as a form of self-expression.

To Daniil Medvedev of Russia, who is No. 2 in the world rankings, tennis is a chess match, requiring the ability to think several shots ahead, to control the center of the court as though it is the center of a chess board, to make the quick moves needed to shift from defense to offense in an instant.

Then there is Djokovic, the player who stands two matches away from pulling off the most hallowed achievement in the game — winning all four Grand Slams in the same calendar year. For Djokovic, tennis is not art, or ballet, and it is certainly not a game. It is combat, a street brawl in which there is only one survivor.

“I can go the distance,” he said as the clock ticked close to 1:30 a.m. Thursday, fittingly using a boxing expression after his 3 hour, 27 minute duel with Matteo Berrettini of Italy in the quarterfinals. “Actually I like to go the distance.”

For nearly two weeks, Djokovic, the 34-year-old Serbian, has faced opponents who are younger, some by more than a decade. Several of them are bigger than he is, and seemingly far stronger. “I don’t want to wrestle with him,” Djokovic joked after beating Berrettini, his 25-year-old opponent, who is 6-foot-5 and more than 200 pounds.

And yet, Djokovic has left all of them not just defeated but also beaten.

Holger Rune, a cocky 18-year-old from Denmark who took a set off him in their first round match, could barely walk by the middle of the third set, crippled by cramping that set in after 90 minutes of chasing Djokovic’s blistering forehands to every corner of the court.

Jenson Brooksby, a 20-year-old American, gave Djokovic all he could handle for a set-and-a-half in the fourth round. But within a few more games, a medical trainer was hovering at his chair, treating him for a hip injury he aggravated during the unmatched physical test that playing Djokovic has become.

The signature moments that night came when Djokovic followed up his on-the-run passing shots by staring down his 6-foot-4 foe.

He said he wanted Brooksby “to feel” his presence on the court, to understand that he was facing someone with no intention of showing any mercy, no matter how hobbled he might be.

“I wanted to wear him down,” he said of Brooksby, “and it worked.”

Battlegrounds are familiar territory for Djokovic, a lover of wolves, the product of a region that was war-torn during his childhood. One of his coaches, Goran Ivanisevic, a Croatian, said that the Balkans bred people who are desperate to prove their resourcefulness to a world that, as he put it, expected nothing from you.

For Djokovic, in so many ways, this U.S. Open has become a microcosm of a career marked not just by on-court battles with opponents, but by career-long fights against so many other forces in the game: fights against history, to do what no player has done before by taking the lead for most Grand Slam titles; against a tennisphere that so loved its binary duel between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and preferred not to have Djokovic crashing their Rafa-Roger lovefest. And there is the never-ending fight against the tens of thousands of tennis fans who come to his matches and roar for him to lose, caring little who the opponent is. (If Novak loses, Roger and Rafa win, their logic goes.)

The jeering jarred Djokovic on his first night here, as the crowd roared “ROOOOOON!” over and over and showed little appreciation for the start of Djokovic’s quest to achieve something that was considered too difficult in this era, with the three greatest-ever players competing all at once. He was terse in his on-court interview after Rune was finished. He abandoned his trademark gesture of pushing his heart out to the crowd. He was blunt in a post-match news conference.

“Obviously you always wish to have the crowd behind you, but it’s not always possible,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”

Two matches later, with the jeering reaching full throttle as Kei Nishikori tried to survive, Djokovic pulled off a series of impossible shots at the key moment of the third set. He put his finger to his ear after the first two, demanding the noise that finally surged behind him. After a third, he squinted and glared at the crowd as he sauntered to his chair for the changeover, sending a very clear message — I am going to beat him and I am going to beat you.

Always, though, the primary fight is on the court, and it is a battle he begins with a head start, because the players on the receiving end of his blows have convinced themselves that nothing less than the best match of their lives will suffice.

“You have to be perfect,” Alexander Zverev, his semifinal opponent, who beat him at the Olympic Games in Tokyo six weeks ago, said earlier this week. “Most of the time you can’t be perfect. That’s why most of the time people lose to him. You have to win the match yourself. You have to be the one that is dominating the points.”

Berrettini looked as though he might have a shot Wednesday night in the quarterfinal.

Everything about Berrettini is big — his shoulders, his chest, the way he stalks the court and unleashes his booming serve and massive forehand, plus a Usain Bolt-like stride that sends him from the baseline to the net seemingly in three quick steps. For 80 minutes he took every blow Djokovic tried to land and gave it back, prevailing 7-5 in the first set, sending the teeming stadium packed with 23,000 fans into a frenzy.

Djokovic, though, was just getting started, raising his level to win the next three games and making sure Berrettini knew how much more he was going to need to come up with to prevail.

Within 40 minutes it was all even. Just before the three-hour mark, a few minutes past midnight, Djokovic was cruising toward the finish. Berrettini was still blasting 130 mile per hour serves, but Djokovic was somehow blasting them right back at his feet and onto the lines. When he ripped a crosscourt forehand that Berrettini could only watch whiz by, the big Italian slumped his shoulders and shook his head.

Once more, Berrettini said, Djokovic had made him sweat in a way other players never do, had taken his early shot square in the mouth when he lost the first set, just as he had to Berrettini in the Wimbledon final, and somehow come back to the court stronger.

“He takes energy from that set that he lost,” Berrettini said.

Berrettini had plenty of company in defeat. By midnight, when Djokovic had made it clear that his night would end just as all the others had, perhaps half the crowd had gone home. The only ones left chanted “Nole, Nole, Nole, Nole…,” inserting Djokovic’s nickname into the Ole chant.

Once more he had fought them all, and won.

“Five sets, five hours, whatever it takes,” he said in the bowels of the stadium, just before he left. “That’s why I’m here.”

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