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Monday, September 27, 2021

Djokovic lets loose, finds groove in 3rd-round win

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5:44 PM ET

  • ESPN News Services

NEW YORK — Novak Djokovic did not seek to keep his thoughts to himself on the court Saturday, the way he mostly did through his first two US Open matches. Instead, he let it all out, slapping his chest or sneering with a fist raised to celebrate success, pointing to his ear to ask the crowd for noise.

This was the Djokovic everyone is so accustomed to seeing — yes, winning on the Grand Slam stage, of course, as he has done in this magical season, but also animated and into it, encouraging the spectators to join him for the ride on his path toward tennis history.

Taking another step in his bid to complete the first calendar-year Slam by a man in more than a half-century, Djokovic moved into the fourth round at Flushing Meadows for the 14th consecutive appearance, coming back to beat Kei Nishikori 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3, 6-2.

“I don’t plan to have those kind of emotional moments on the court, whether good or bad. It just happens,” Djokovic said. “In the heat of the battle, when you feel like the moment is very important … you just want to get those things out of yourself, out of your system — try to, I guess, ride on that energy wave that you create, whether it’s with yourself, whether it’s with the crowd.”

Djokovic, the 34-year-old from Serbia who is ranked No. 1, is now 24-0 in the sport’s four most important events this season, having won the Australian Open in February, the French Open in June and Wimbledon in July. The last man to go 4-for-4 at the majors was Rod Laver in 1969; Steffi Graf was the last woman, in 1988.

Win four more matches next week, and Djokovic also would earn his 21st career Slam trophy, breaking the men’s mark he currently shares with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

“I would not be honest fully if I told you I don’t think or I don’t believe or I don’t visualize that I can win every single Grand Slam that I play in,” Djokovic said. “I’m not surprised when I win Slams and big tournaments because that’s always a goal.”

It was in the fourth round last year that Djokovic’s US Open run ended, defaulted late in the first set for hitting a ball after ceding a game and inadvertently hitting a line judge in the throat. In 2019, an injury ended his trip to New York in the fourth round, too.

Next up will be a match against 20-year-old American wild-card entry Jenson Brooksby.

Brooksby became the youngest American man to reach the fourth round of the US Open since Andy Roddick in 2002 after his five-set win over 21st-seeded Russian Aslan Karatsev, 6-2, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3. Brooksby joined Frances Tiafoe as the American men to have already advanced to the fourth round.

Other players advancing on a sunny Saturday included Wimbledon runner-up Matteo Berrettini and No. 13 Jannik Sinner — they gave Italy a pair of men in the US Open’s Round of 16 for the first time in the event’s 140-year history — along with 22nd-seeded American Reilly Opelka and South African Lloyd Harris, who beat seventh-seeded Denis Shapovalov in straight sets.

Tokyo Games men’s champion Alexander Zverev also advanced to the fourth round when Jack Sock was forced to retire in the fourth set because of an injury. Zverev led 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 and held a 2-1 lead when Sock had to call it quits. Sock has been bothered by a groin injury and he was forced on his back for more than 5 minutes in the second set while a trainer worked on him.

After eliminating a couple of inexperienced opponents ranked 121st and 145th, Djokovic faced someone with a far better résumé in Nishikori, who was the runner-up at the 2014 US Open and has been as high as No. 4. Here, though, was the problem for Nishikori heading into this encounter: He’d lost his past 16 matches against Djokovic.

And while Nishikori, to loud roars from the stands in Arthur Ashe Stadium, stole the first set, the march to No. 17 in a row was soon in progress.

“I don’t think I started off very well. I was quite passive. I was too far back in the court. He was dictating the play,” Djokovic said. “He played much quicker and more aggressive than my opponents in the opening rounds did.”

One key stat: Djokovic made 20 unforced errors in the first set, then reduced that to an average of 10½ per set over the last three. Here’s more: Djokovic came up with a high-for-him 15 aces and dropped serve twice, while breaking Nishikori seven times.

“I couldn’t break the wall,” Nishikori said. “He’s very tough till the end.”

And Djokovic reacted to vital moments with joy, eliciting similar displays from fans, who were barred from the tournament in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The crowd was involved. It was loud. It was nice,” Djokovic said. “I thrived on that.”

When he broke to lead 2-1 in the second set by winning a fantastic point that ended with both men near the net, he spun around and yelled, mouth agape. In his guest box, his wife, Jelena, stood and shouted, “Come on!” When Djokovic saved a break point in the third set, he indicated he wanted louder cheers by reaching for his right ear, then wagging his fingers. When he broke to go up 5-3, he pursed his lips to say, “Ooh!” In the next game, he reacted to a netted drop shot by tapping himself on the head with his racket three times, then screamed when he took that set, first toward one side of the stands, then another.

Djokovic described his improved play as the match wore on, stretching past 3½ hours, as “getting that groove back and getting that rhythm.” In other words, he might just be hitting his stride heading into Week 2 on the hard courts. He certainly looked comfortable in the moment Saturday.

“Maybe,” Nishikori said, “he’s feeling that inside — a lot of pressure — but I couldn’t see that during the match.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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