Novak and Holding On

By the most obvious of measures, Novak Djokovic had the closest thing to a free ride into the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. The field was basically cleared before he ever began. Rafael Nadal isn’t in New York. Neither is Roger Federer. Defending champ Dominic Thiem pulled out with a wrist injury. On the first day of the main draw, Andy Murray got knocked out of the tournament in a heated match with young gun Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Marin Čilić had to pull out with an injury.

That left Djokovic as the only man in the entire tournament who had won a grand slam title. The only one.

In the first round, Djokovic played a promising but still raw young Danish player named Holger Rune, ranked 145 in the world. Rune hit a bunch of winners and took a set but then was crumpled by leg cramps.

In the second round, Djokovic played a Dutch player, Tallon Griekspoor, ranked 121 in the world, a player Djokovic had to sheepishly admit he knew nothing about. He quickly figured out that while Griekspoor was a solid enough hitter — they all are at the highest level — he wasn’t a great mover, and relatively immobile guys like that have no shot against Djokovic’s game. The only drama came when a heckler yelled as Djokovic tried to hit an overhead.

In the third round, Djokovic played an old friend, Kei Nishikori, who was once the No. 4 player in the world. Nishikori is now outside the top 50 trying to work his way back in. Nishikori had beaten Djokovic on this stage before, back in 2014, a U.S. Open semifinal match that seemed to announce Nishikori’s arrival as a superstar. But, alas, Djokovic won their next 17 matchups. And Djokovic then made it 18 in a row, losing the first set and then roaring through the next three 6-3, 6-3, 6-2.

In the fourth round, he played the next great American hope, Jenson Brooksby, just 20 years old, 99th in the world but climbing fast. Brooksby is an unusual player. He’s 6-foot-4 but doesn’t have a big serve. He hits a two-handed slice backhand. He also employs various gamesmanship tactics, adjusting his grunts to distract opponents, occasionally appearing to wave his arms when an opponent is trying to hit an overhead, playing to the crowd. I’m not sure how much any of this will play into his future as a tennis star, but it annoys the bejeezus out of his opponents now and it seemed clear that he had gotten Djokovic out of his rhythm when he won the first set 6-1 and broke Djokovic’s serve in the second.

But Djokovic broke right back and schooled the kid the rest of the way. “First he takes your legs,” former U.S. Open champ Andy Roddick tweeted. “Then he takes your soul.” Djokovic objected to the second part, insisting that he has no interest in taking anyone’s beautiful soul, but he agreed to the part about taking people’s legs. And Brooksby admitted that his legs left him. The last three sets were 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.

All of this might have seemed pretty routine stuff for Djokovic.

But, here’s the thing: None of it FELT routine.

Djokovic’s quarterfinal match Wednesday night was against Matteo Berrettini, whose nickname is “Martello,” which is Italian for “Hammer.” He’s 6-foot-5 and built like an NFL tight end. He hits 135-mph serves and backs them up with rocket forehands. Berrettini reminds me of the great Argentine player, Juan Martin del Potro, who I saw hit Djokovic off the court at the Olympics in Brazil.

Berrettini’s game is not without flaws — his movement is not quite at the highest level and his backhand does not have nearly the same bite as his forehand — but this is like saying that Shohei Ohtani swings and misses a lot or that Giannis Antetokounmpo is not an elite three-point shooter. It’s true but it misses the point. When you hit 135-mph serves and the hardest forehands in the world, you can beat anybody.

And in the first set, Berrettini did just that. Djokovic was determined to start off strong; he had lost the first set EIGHT times during this Grand Slam run, which is a record he is not especially proud of. Djokovic dug in from the start and gave himself chances to break the Hammer’s serve … but he couldn’t do it. The serve was too big. The forehand was too powerful. Late in the set, Berrettini gave himself a chance to break. Djokovic attacked, charged the net, punched a solid volley to the right corner — unfortunately for him, that’s Berrettini’s forehand side and Martello blasted a cross-court winner to get the break.

He then served out the first set, and for the ninth time in the majors this year, Djokovic found himself behind.

You will almost never watch a Novak Djokovic match without hearing the announcers talk — usually at some length — about Djokovic’s popularity and likability, or lack thereof. It is well known that Djokovic crashed the party in 2011; at that point, tennis was dominated by a stylish and cool character named Roger Federer and a friendly warrior named Rafael Nadal.

Jerry Seinfeld has said that the great thing about James Bond movies is that it’s the most evil guy in the world vs. the most good guy in the world and you leave liking them both equally. That was the extraordinary part of the Roger-Rafa battle; you could be a massive Roger fan and still think the world of Rafa; you could be an enormous Rafa fan and still admire Roger. Their respect for each other came through in every glorious point. It was the perfect rivalry.

Then, along came Djoker, and Roger didn’t like him one bit. Rafa didn’t seem too crazy about him either. Djokovic had pulled out of several matches as a young player. He didn’t seem entirely serious about things. In 2011, Federer had Djokovic down double match point at the U.S. Open, and he hit a wide serve to Djokovic’s forehand … and what followed might have been the most famous return in tennis history.

Federer certainly did not see it as famous or brilliant — he thought it was a totally lucky shot by someone who had mentally checked out and had decided to basically close his eyes and swing wildly and hope for the best. “It’s not a guy who believes much anymore in winning,” Federer said bitterly after the match. “Then to lose to someone like that, it’s very disappointing.”

Both he and Nadal would lose to Djokovic A LOT after that. Since 2011, Federer’s record against Djokovic is 11-21. Nadal’s is 12-23. Combined, Federer and Nadal have won 15 grand slam titles in the last decade. Djokovic has won 19.

And there are those who remain consumed by this story angle — Novak Djokovic as villain, as usurper, as antihero nobody particularly likes. He has played into this some himself by responding defiantly to the crowd’s jeers, getting himself disqualified from the U.S. Open by hitting a linesperson with the ball, making controversial statements now and again.

Still, I tend to think this angle gets overplayed … Djokovic has many, many, many millions of fans around the world. I think part of this narrative is due less to Djokovic himself and more to where the biggest tournaments are played. Wimbledon belongs to the Swiss Federer and the local Andy Murray. Paris belongs to Spain’s Nadal and electrifying French players like Gael Monfils. New York is tough on everybody and desperate for some American to break through. Melbourne is on the other side of the world. Djokovic, who grew up in war-torn Serbia, far from tennis’ center stages, gets very few home matches.

All that said, you do get the sense that there is a growing appreciation for Djokovic. Maybe it’s because he’s on the cusp of doing something almost unthinkable — winning a grand slam and passing Roger and Rafa with his 21st major championship. But I wonder if it’s really something else. Djokovic is showing his age. Yes, he’s still the best player in the world. Yes, in many ways, he still seems inevitable.

But throughout this Grand Slam run, Djokovic has been pushed to the brink. He needed five sets to beat American Taylor Fritz in Australia. Nadal had him down a set at the French Open … heck, Lorenzo Musetti and Tsitsipas had him down two sets in Paris. He lost the first set of the Wimbledon final to Berrettini just like he lost his first set to Berrettini Wednesday night at the U.S. Open.

He went to Tokyo to finally win that Olympic gold medal that he has longed for his entire career … and left without any medal at all. He then went into hibernation for a month, not playing any tournaments at all leading into the U.S. Open.

Those nine matches where he lost the first set … in some of them, he didn’t just lose sets, he was utterly dominated. Rune and Brooksby at this U.S. Open made Djokovic look almost helpless. They outhit him. They staggered him. Yes, sure, he’s Novak Djokovic, so he had enough experience and greatness (and fitness) to let them punch themselves out. But you could see the future. Djokovic is 34. The kids keep coming — Musetti and Rune and Brooksby and Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner and more — and they’re hitting the ball harder, they’re running faster, they’re not intimidated.

And I think maybe people can see that. Djokovic won’t be around forever.

I cannot fully describe what happened to Djokovic in the final three sets of his match against Berrettini. He sat in his chair after the first-set loss and stared off into the distance — he calls this going to the zone — and then he raised his game to a level that, as I say, is almost indescribable.

And from that point on, Berrettini would unleash his 135-mph serve, and Djokovic would blast it back at his feet — nobody has ever returned serve the way Djokovic does. Berrettini would bash his supreme forehand to one of the corners, and Djokovic would somehow run it down and send Berretini running and follow it by cracking winners into the open court. Djokovic didn’t miss. He couldn’t miss. Berrettini would pump his fist after the few points he won, gamely trying to convince himself that winning was still possible.

Winning was not still possible.

Djokovic won the last three sets 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.

Next, he plays Sascha Zverev, a 6-foot-6 basher with a 145-mph serve and the best two-handed backhand East of Djokovic. It was Zverev who took Djokovic out in Tokyo, coming back from being down a set and a break. Casual tennis fans will expect Djokovic to win because he always does; Djoker has won six of the nine times they have played and beat Zverev earlier this year at the Australian Open (after, of course, losing the opening set).

But there really is the chance that this is the moment when time runs out. That’s the thing about athletic greatness; it always ends, and usually without warning. Very few athletes get to hit a home run in their last at-bat the way Ted Williams did. Very few legends get one last moment in the sun the way Jack Nicklaus did. Zverev is 24 and coming into his own and absolutely has the power and game to end Djokovic’s grand slam hopes. And there’s no telling what comes after that.

The one thing we know for sure is tomorrow will come, and tomorrow will belong to the kids.

It’s mesmerizing watching Novak Djokovic try desperately to hold on to today.