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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Us Open - GREG RUSEDSKI

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

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