September 8, 2018
It isn’t the final we were expecting. But Novak Djokovic believes it will be ‘thrilling’ nonetheless.
And if Juan Martin del Potro can use brain as effectively as brawn, we will have a very special US Open final.
Rafael Nadal was supposed to be Novak’s opponent, of course.
A repeat of their glorious Wimbledon semi-final, regarded by most as the real Wimbledon final this European summer.
But Nadal couldn’t last the distance in New York to engineer the next big one against Novak.
He had been feeling his knee for several rounds. The epic against Dominic Thiem couldn’t have helped.
Rafa competed hard against Delpo nevertheless. He had his right knee restrapped after four games, then again later. Whatever it took to stay in the fight and reach the final.
And no one could say Nadal lacked mobility when he pulled off an impossible save, as the giant from Argentina served for the first set at 5-4 and turned up the power.
Rafa stretched to his left for a crazy forehand retrieve that left Del Potro stunned. It helped the Spaniard to fend off two set points.
When Nadal levelled, Delpo’s head dropped in visible disappointment. You sensed that Rafa could seize back the early momentum.
Credit to Juan Martin, though. He recovered from that setback to dominate the tie-break and win it 7-3.
At that stage, the smart money was probably on another five-set classic. A drained Nadal would then win through, to be beaten ultimately by Djokovic in the final.
But Rafa’s condition deteriorated. He didn’t even chase the forehand that won Del Potro the second set 6-2.
By then, Rafa insisted, ‘It wasn’t a tennis match. I was in so much pain, there was a player on one side and someone just standing there on the other side.’
So Nadal shook hands and called it a Grand Slam year. Meanwhile Delpo will believe he fully deserves his chance against Djokovic.
Much of the focus remained on the loser, Nadal, though. He will be back, he insists. He has been written off before and he is still here.
True enough. But it is Del Potro who now has the difficult task of outwitwting Djokovic.
Can he do it? If he hits the lines, turns up the power and allows Novak no time to think or settle, then maybe.
But Djokovic is in tremendous form, having dismantled Kei Nishikori in straight sets.
‘Like thousands of tennis players, I am trying to be the best I can be,’ he said. And he is back to just that level of near-perfection.
‘We have never played in a Grand Slam final so it should be a thriller,’ Novak said.
Kei wasn’t thrilled by his own match with Djokovic. Nishikori trudged off looking like a broken man after Novak neutralised his latest challenge for the US Open title.
With all of Japan, and perhaps the entire continent of Asia hoping for great things, Nishikori simply couldn’t deliver. Because Djokovic didn’t let him.
The Serb is the master tactician and the finest all-round technician in world tennis. He spoilt Japan’s party, even though Nishikori has to be saluted for his brilliant performance in the tournament as a whole.
Now Djokovic will try to move Del Potro all around the court. Up to the net with drop-shots, back to the baseline with lobs. He will test Del Potro’s mobility ruthlessly. If Delpo is found wanting, he too will be dismantled.
But Novak was cautious. ‘He is a big game player,’ he observed, as though warning himself of those rare, joyous days when Delpo is simply unplayable.
Novak may have too much in the final analysis. But Del Potro will have a noisy crowd behind him. And come Sunday, anything can happen.