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Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Sports Thread #1 For 8/13/15: How Djokovic Isn't a Lock To Win The US Open


As his return to competition begins at the Rogers Cup in Montreal this week, it appears nothing can stop Novak Djokovic from capturing a 10th Grand Slam title at the upcoming US Open, not even a grown man on his back with a steep flight of stairs in his path. His recovery from a devastating Roland Garros defeat to Stan Wawrinka, by winning Wimbledon for the third time, was just as impressive as if he were still up for a calendar Slam. It was a signal that Djokovic is clearly the best in the world at the moment as questions beset his other Big 4 rivals with Roger Federer’s age, Andy Murray’s consistency and Rafael Nadal’s confidence affecting their level.   

Coupling Djokovic’s current dominion of the ATP World Tour with his hard court supremacy may appear to make him a larger favorite in Flushing Meadows. The Serbian has already won the three biggest titles on the surface this year, capturing a fifth Australian Open with ease and showing his legendary resilience in conquering the big Indian Wells-Miami double once again. All signs appear pointing to Djokovic repeating his extraordinary feat of 2011 in winning three Grand Slams in a year. 

But those presumptions pronouncements about Djokovic hoisting the trophy on the final day of the year’s last Slam need to be halted, as arguably the tennis season’s toughest stretch is where Djokovic has found the most difficulty. The men’s world number one has gone a full two North American summers without taking home a title, and has still just one U.S. Open title to his name, from 2011. The two big Masters 1000 events, the Rogers Cup (both Montreal and Toronto alternate the tournament each year with the women) and W & S Open (Cincinnati Masters), Ohio, have seen roller coaster results from Djokovic that has culminated in ordinary finishes at Arthur Ashe Stadium. 

Despite being in the fifth year of his gutten free diet that has taken his fitness and game to the elite level, Djokovic has still at times struggled when the conditions get hot and humid in North America. That was mostly prevalent in his U.S. Open semifinal loss last year to Kei Nishikori, as the smaller, slighter Japanese talent, known for his own array of physical problems, was the stronger man in that four set surprise upset. But even coming into that tournament, Djokovic was already on shaky hard court form after winning Wimbledon 2014. He suffered shock, straight forward defeats at both Masters 1000 warmups. Jo Wilfred Tsonga completely hit him off the court in a 6-2, 6-2 thumping in Toronto that served as one of 2014’s shock scorelines. The ageless veteran Tommy Robredo followed that up a week later in Cincinnati to defeat Djokovic 7-6 (6), 7-5 in another eyebrow raising result. Djokovic’s forgettable 2014 summer came after a titleless 2013 summer hard court season, at the hands of a then sharp Nadal (in both the U.S. Open final and Montreal semifinals) and John Isner (in Cincinnati) out serving him. 

The Canadian cities have by far been the best place for Djokovic in the summer. His three titles north of the border, including his Montreal 2007 breakthrough win defeating Andy Roddick,  Nadal and  Federer when they were the Top 3 ranked players at the time, give him some comfort there. But Djokovic has been completely shut out of the winner’s circle in Cincinnati, a four time runner up who has been denied the last significant hard court title left on his resume by Federer and Murray. The heat in the midwest has affected him, as well as the pressure expected to win on his best surface. And it’s where Djokovic’s career hit its nadir, suffering a frustrating quarterfinals defeat to Roddick in 2010. It was a loss that almost resulted in him departing with then longtime coach Marian Vajda and almost going out in the Open’s first round to countryman Viktor Troicki. Djokovic went on to later beat Federer in a dramatic semifinal before losing to Nadal in that 2010 U.S. Open, citing that tournament as the turning point in his career before that amazing 2011 campaign.

Despite all of that, Djokovic is still the worthy favorite at all three of these prestigious hard court titles. The great momentum he carries from winning Wimbledon, coupled with the mysteries surrounding Nadal, Murray and Federer (who is not playing in Montreal), will not be ignored by any rational soul.  But just like how the nerves of winning a calendar Grand Slam could prevent Serena Williams from being a solid lock in New York, past summer form indicates that writing in Novak Djokovic as the 2015 US Open champion is way too premature. 
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