Novak Djokovic is ready for a new fight


“Good fight.” “Battle.”

This is always Novak Djokovic, late at night, often after midnight, when another day of work finally ends, when the arena emptied and he sat in front of the microphone, piercing eyes in an unusual combination of glazed and steel and trying to convey in words what he had just suffered .

For so many tennis players, their game exists as an art form. Stefanos Tsitsipas from Greece, the third-ranked player in the world, talks about tennis as a form of self-expression.

For Danilo Medvedev of Russia, who is second on the world rankings, tennis is a chess match, which requires the ability to think a few strokes ahead, to control the center of the court as if it were the center of a chessboard, make the quick moves needed to move from defense to attack in an instant .

Then there is Djokovic, a player who has two matches away from achieving the holiest achievement in the game – winning all four Grand Slams in the same calendar year. For Djokovic, tennis is not an art or ballet, and it is certainly not a game. It’s a fight, a street fight in which there is only one survivor.


“Good fight.”

“I can go the distance,” he said as the clock ticked close to 1:30 a.m. Thursday, appropriately using a boxing expression after his 3-hour, 27-minute duel with Italy’s Matteo Berrettini in the quarterfinals. “I actually like to go further.”

For almost two weeks, Djokovic, a 34-year-old Serb, has been facing opponents who are younger, some for more than a decade. A few of them are bigger than him and seemingly far stronger. “I don’t want to wrestle with him,” Djokovic joked after beating Berrettini, his 25-year-old opponent, who weighs 6 feet and weighs more than 200 kilograms.

Nevertheless, Djokovic left them all not only defeated, but also defeated.

Holger Rune, a cheeky 18-year-old from Denmark who took the set away from him in his match in the first round, could barely walk until the middle of the third set, crippled by cramps that arose after 90 minutes of hunting for Djokovic’s forehands every corner of the court.

Jenson Brooksby, a 20-year-old American, gave Djokovic everything he could stand for a set and a half in the fourth round. But in a few more games, the medical coach hovered over his chair, treating him from a hip injury that he exacerbated during an incomparable physical test that became Djokovic’s playing.

There were recognizable moments that evening when Djokovic continued his missed shots on the run, staring at his enemy from 4 meters.

He said he wanted Brooksby to “feel” his presence on the field, to realize he was facing someone with no intention of showing any mercy, no matter how stiff he was.

“I wanted to exhaust him,” he told Brooksby, “and it worked.”

Battlefields are known territory for Djokovic, a wolf lover, a product of a region that was devastated by war during his childhood. One of his coaches, Croatian Goran Ivanisevic, said that the Balkans have raised people who are desperate to prove their resourcefulness to a world that, as he said, expects nothing from you.

For Djokovic, this US Open has in many ways become a microcosm of a career marked not only by fighting on the field with opponents, but also by fighting throughout his career against so many other forces in the game: fighting history, things to do that no player has done so far. taking the lead for most Grand Slam titles; against the tennis sphere that loved its binary duel between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer so much and rather did not allow Djokovic to overthrow their Rafa-Roger lovefest. And there is a constant fight against tens of thousands of tennis fans who come to his matches and shout that they will lose, regardless of who the opponent is. (If Novak loses, Roger and Rafa win, their logic goes.)

The ridicule upset Djokovic the first night here, while the crowd roared “ROOOOOON!” over and over again and little appreciated the beginning of Djokovic’s quest to achieve something that was considered too difficult in this era, with the three greatest players ever competing at once. He was brief in his field interview after Rune finished. He left his trademark, pushing his heart into the crowd. He was sharp at the press conference after the match.

“Obviously you always want to have a crowd behind you, but that’s not always possible,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”

Two matches later, while the ridicule reached full throttle, while Kei Nishikori was trying to survive, Djokovic pulled out a series of impossible punches at a crucial moment in the third set. He put his finger to his ear after the first two, demanding a noise that finally echoed behind him. After a third, he squinted and glared at the crowd as he walked to the chair for a change, sending a very clear message – I will beat him and I will beat you.

There is always, however, a primary fight on the field, and the battle begins with the start, as the players who received his punches are convinced that nothing less than the best in their lives will be enough.

“You have to be perfect,” Alexander Zverev, his semi-final opponent, who beat him at the Tokyo Olympics six weeks ago, said earlier this week. “You can’t be perfect most of the time. That’s why people usually lose from it. You have to win the match on your own. You have to be the one who dominates the points. ”

Berrettini looked like he could have a chance in the quarterfinals on Wednesday night.

Everything about Berrettini is big — his shoulders, his chest, the way he lurks on the field and unleashes his growing serve and strong forehand, plus a step like Usain Bolt who seemingly sends him in three quick steps to the net. For 80 minutes, he accepted every shot that Djokovic tried to land and returned the favor, prevailing 7-5 in the first set, which drove the angry stadium full of 23,000 fans crazy.

Djokovic, however, was just starting out, raising his level to win the next three games and making sure Berrettini knew how much more he would need to surpass.

Within 40 minutes, everything leveled off. Just before the three-hour mark, a few minutes after midnight, Djokovic was cruising towards the finish line. Berrettini still spent 130 miles per hour of service, but Djokovic somehow broke them to the feet and to the line. When he dug a crosshair with a forehand that Berrettini could only watch as he advanced, the great Italian shrugged and shook his head.

Once again, Berrettini said, Djokovic made him sweat the way other players never do, took an early shot in his mouth when he lost the first set, just as he had to with Berrettini in the Wimbledon final, and somehow he came back to court stronger.

“He takes the energy from that set he lost,” Berrettini said.

Berrettini had plenty of company in the defeat. By midnight, when Djokovic made it clear that his night would end just like everyone else, maybe half the people had gone home. The only ones left chanted “Nole, Nole, Nole, Nole …”, inserting Djokovic’s nickname into Ole’s tune.

Once again he fought all of them and won.

“Five sets, five hours, whatever it takes,” he said in the bowels of the stadium, just before leaving. “That’s why I’m here.”

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