Unlike 2011, when Novak Djokovic dominated the men’s game and entered the US Open as a solid favorite, parity among the Big 4 makes 2012’s last major tournament more intriguing. This season they have evenly divided the three Grand Slam events and the Olympics. Sadly, ultimate warrior Rafael Nadal, the US finalist last year, withdrew from Flushing Meadows because of chronic knee pain. Australian champion Novak Djokovic, Wimbledon king Roger Federer and Olympic gold medalist Andy Murray rate as the top contenders by a wide margin.
History strangely repeated itself in 2010 and 2011 when Djokovic boldly fought off two match points to overcome Federer in enthralling, five-set semifinals. Fortune favors the brave, as Terence wrote long ago, and Djokovic pounded Federer’s timid, 108-mph first serve for a forehand winner to escape his first match point last year. This July, after Federer defeated Djokovic in a four-set Wimbledon semifinal, Fed confided, “It’s clear that you have flashbacks that come to you from that kind of match.”
During 2011−12 Djokovic boasts a 6-3 edge over Federer, including an important 3-1 record on hard courts. While the Swiss legend can still conjure up amazing shots and brilliant matches, his bad days come more often now. Not since Nadal overwhelmed him in the 2008 French final has Federer looked more impotent than in the Olympics gold medal match when Murray outclassed him 6-2, 6-1, 6-4. Federer’s one-handed backhand—even without nemesis Nadal to deal with—will prove vulnerable in the swirling New York wind and will prevent him from capturing his sixth US title.
Although Djokovic hasn’t come close to matching his extraordinary 2011—highlighted by three Grand Slam titles, a record five ATP World Tour Masters 1000 trophies and a 41-match winning streak — he’s won a major title, plus Masters 1000 events in Miami and Toronto. He also reached finals at Roland Garros, Monte Carlo, Rome and Cincinnati.
Lady Luck wasn’t on Djokovic’s side in the French Open final where he was bidding for a historic fourth straight major title in June. “He was so close to winning it,” pointed out CBS analyst Jim Courier. “He had all the momentum when the rain came. Nadal was as frustrated as I’ve ever seen him. When they came back on Monday, Djokovic was up a service break in the fourth set. A net cord in the first game led to a break back for Nadal, and that was all it took.”
Importantly, four of Djoker’s five major crowns have come on hard courts, his favorite and most successful surface. The extroverted Serb rightly considers himself an “all-around player.” At his best, Djokovic is a power grinder with super-solid groundstrokes like Andre Agassi along with the defensive skills of Nadal and the finishing shots of Federer.
Although he was flat in the last set and a half of the Wimbledon semis against Fed and admitted, “I dropped in the energy level, I thought. I played really a couple of sloppy games, very slow, with no pace,” Djokovic typically performs well when the pressure is greatest. With plenty of weapons, including the sport’s premier service return, and no holes in his game, he should continue to shine in best-of-five-set matches.
“Novak goes for his shots. He’s aggressive on the big points,” praised Federer before defeating Djokovic in the Cincinnati final a week before the Open. “That’s why he was No. 1 for a while. He’s amazing on hard courts.”
Also, having solved his gluten problem with dietary changes, Djoker can handle the New York heat and humidity as proved by his superb stamina throughout the brutal 5-hour and 53-minute Australian Open final in January. He also displayed courage and poise there, rebounding from a 4-2 deficit in the fifth set against Nadal.
If you like match statistics, Djokovic’s numbers are highly impressive this year. He’s won 87% of his service games, thanks partly to winning 57% of his second serve points and saving 68% of his break points. When his opponents serve, he’s won 55% of second serve points (2nd among ATP players) and converted 44% of break points.
Finally, Djoker is blessed with an easier draw than Federer and Murray. They will likely meet in the semis, though Milos Raonic and Sam Querrey may produce major upsets in the top half. The most formidable players in Djoker’s half are No. 4 seed David Ferrer, resurgent No. 7 Juan Martin del Potro (who upset Djoker at the Olympics and then lost to him in Cincinnati), No. 8 Janko Tipsarevic, monster server and No. 9 John Isner and No. 18 Stanislaw Wawrinka.
I predict Djokovic, listed as a 3-2 favorite by oddsmakers, will retain his US Open crown for all these compelling reasons. When the last shot is hit, Djoker will get the last laugh.
Paul Fein has received more than 30 writing awards and authored three books, Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies; You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers; and Tennis Confidential II: More of Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies. Fein is also a USPTA-certified teaching pro and coach with a Pro-1 rating, former director of the Springfield (Mass.) Satellite Tournament, a former top 10-ranked men’s open New England tournament player and No. 1-ranked Super Senior player in New England.