Djokovic victory would confirm him as player of the year
Fit-again Serb looks to have edge over Del Potro as he seeks to equal Sampras’ 14-major haul
There will be two people sitting at home who have their fingers crossed for a Juan Martin del Potro win today – and their names are Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The old “Big Two” might seem to be a long way ahead of the pack, on 20 and 17 majors respectively. But if Novak Djokovic wins today he will equal Pete Sampras’ tally of 14. And the next time we all get together will be in January at the Australian Open, the
tournament that he has made his own. If Djokovic can squeeze past Del Potro today, you wouldn’t put it past him to go on one of his long runs. He has done it before: three straight majors in 2011-12, and four in 2015-2016. That “Novak slam,” when he was working with Boris Becker, was an achievement that never received the appreciation it deserved.
Novak needs to have the right people around him to be at his best, and since he reunited with Marian Vajda – his old mentor – in Monte Carlo in April, everything has started to fall back into place. The experiments with Andre Agassi, Radek Stepanek and Pepe Imaz are over and the results are there on the court.
During the two-year period when Djokovic didn’t win a major, which ran from the summer of 2016 to Wimbledon this year, his serve and backhand were not performing. He was carrying an elbow injury, which he finally addressed with a small operation in February this year, and his service motion kept changing.
But since working with Vajda he has returned to the old action and it looks so smooth. Djokovic has never been a
speed merchant but he is incredibly accurate when he goes for the corners, and that is far more effective. If you serve with pace into the hitting zone, the best players will just pump the ball back even harder. But if you make them stretch, you can earn a short
return and set up the point for your next shot.
Novak is playing well but one thing that has been picked up on is his fairly low conversion rate on break points which stands at only 37 per cent in this tournament. As arguably the best
returner of all time, that’s not a problem we are used to seeing from him. If he doesn’t convert his opportunities today he could get frustrated, but otherwise I don’t see any chinks in his armour.
Del Potro has incredible firepower, but Djokovic takes the ball better on the rise in defence than anybody. His movement is back, and the hot weather that has sometimes bothered him in the past has blown over New York, replaced by a cool change.
There is even a possibility of rain. If this becomes a fully indoor tournament, then Djokovic’s record under a roof is exceptional.
It’s an oddity that, if he wins, Djokovic will still only be No 3 in the world. But the players care more about grand slam titles than rankings. The two men at the top – Nadal and Federer – will know that if Djokovic finishes with two majors in 2018, he is still the player of the year, even though he had barely picked up any points before the grass-court season began.
Can Del Potro stop him? Well, it was great to see him hit his backhand up the line with such aggression against Nadal on Friday night, even if Nadal
ended up having to retire because of his latest bout of knee trouble.
That shot will be important again tonight, because Djokovic will be looking to wrap Del Potro up in backhand-to-backhand cross-court rallies – an exchange in which there is only going to be one winner.
So Del Potro will need to find a way to break the pattern and put the rally back on even terms. Hitting up the line to the Djokovic forehand is probably his best option.
I don’t see this being a one-sided match because it’s two of the best tennis minds in the business, and they will both be prepared to change tactics if the battle is going against them. People look at Del Potro’s ferocious forehand and think that he is a power player, but he is actually very canny, and he never goes away mentally.
If Del Potro wins, it will be the longest ever gap between a tennis player’s first slam and his second. It would be a hugely romantic story, after all the wrist trouble he has had. But sport is not always about fairy tales. I am still backing Djokovic – in either four or five sets – as I have done from the start of the tournament.
Smooth operator: Novak Djokovic is striking the ball well again after elbow surgery