US Open 2011: Djokovic breaks the Dolgopolov spell

Novak Djokovic reaches the US Open quarter-finals with a 7-6 (16-14) 6-4 6-2 win over Alexandr Dolgopolov

novak djokovic
Djokovic lost to Rafael Nadal in last year's final at Flushing Meadows Photo: Marianne Bevis

novak djokovic

It was a match-up that had the juices flowing from the off. Novak Djokovic was drawn to play the survivor of the scintillating third-round face-off between Richard Gasquet and Alexandr Dolgopolov.

In the event, that match-up never happened because Ivo Karlovic rained 29 aces down on the Frenchman in Round Two, but a torrent of aces meant nothing against the unpredictable flamboyance of Dolgopolov.

Standing 11 inches shorter and weighing in at 73 lbs lighter than Karlovic, the young man from the Ukraine fired down 22 aces of his own””the same as Karlovic””yet the real clue to the Dolgopolov talent was in his winner count. He fired 59 of them compared with just 26 errors.

For when Dolgopolov is on song, he has the serve and forehand to make outright winners but also the guile, spin and unconventional shot style to create openings to attack and to tempt opponents into mistakes.

In short, he poses the kind of problem that a man of Djokovic’s skills and intelligence relishes. That they had never met before added some extra spice.

How would the world No1 handle such a bag of tricks? How would he cope with the swirling wind? And how would he react to being scheduled on Flushing’s second court, Louis Armstrong? After all, neither No2 Rafael Nadal nor No3 Roger Federer have played anywhere but Arthur Ashe.

It’s a sign of the confidence Djokovic has in both his status and ranking that he made a positive of what might have been seen as a slight.

“I was happy to be there,” said the world No1. “I was happy to experience the Armstrong court again. Sometimes it’s really nice to be on the smaller court where the crowd is closer.”

Certainly he, and the reputation of the Dolgopolov package, made this the star attraction of Labour Day at Flushing.

Never has there been a longer queue to grab a seat in this intimate, bowl-shaped arena: 500m at least, snaking around the perimeter of Arthur Ashe. And the first set was worth the price of entry alone. Even the media section was full for the first time this week.

All went according to plan for a couple of games until Dolgopolov had a first break point in the third game. He did not convert it, but two backhand winners in the fifth brought him three more chances. On the last of them, a tentative double fault handed the Ukrainian the break, 3-2.

But the problem with the Dolgopolov game is that his margin for error is small and his eagerness to make winners great. He hit two forehands long and a third error gave Djokovic the break back.

The wind roared through the loudspeakers as the two men sliced and powered through some showcase rallies – Djokovic finding his purist flat drives and passes, Dolgopolov slicing the coating off the balls before racing into the net for a topspin winner.

Dolgopolov made his US Open debut last year, losing his opening match. This year he was not only in the fourth round but had taken Djokovic””the man on a 60-2 win-loss record””to his first tie-break of the tournament.

The drama was only just beginning. Dolgopolov followed a down-the-line backhand winner with a rally of acute sliced balls that Djokovic struggled to either read or return. The Ukrainian mixed in some chip-and-charge for good measure, ran to a 4-0 lead and the crowd cheered him on.

They say you make your own luck, but Djokovic had no say in the net-cord that dribbled over the net to break his score-line’s duck. Nor did he have a say in the “out” call of a Dolgopolov winner that hit the baseline.

They played the point again, Djokovic won it, and cashed in on the stalling Dolgopolov score to reel off five points in a row.

Dolgopolov stopped the run with a forehand cross-court winner onto the sideline to create a set point, the first of four. But this would be a marathon of jaw-dropping shot-making and heart-wrenching errors.

They teased with drop shots, skimmed with slice, opened up for cross-court winners and smiled their way””almost in bemusement””towards 14-14. Finally the experience and patience of Djokovic earned their reward. It took a couple of big serves and the set was his after an hour and 18 minutes of tennis entertainment at its best.

Dolgopolov continued to draw the occasional gasp for his net-skimming antics but more often they were sighs of frustration at his rash over-hitting and netted returns. Djokovic for his part now had a better read on his game and returned with more bite and more consistency.

It took less time for Djokovic to take the remaining two sets together than the first, 6-4, 6-2, and he stepped into Grand Slam history books. He and Janko Tipsarevic are the first Serbian duo in the Open era to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final.

As for Dolgopolov, he is still work in progress. He won his first title this year in Umag, reached his first Slam quarter-final in Australia and broke into the top 20 for the first time. But he was the first to identify what needs to be improved.

“For sure [I need to] get my fitness together because I was a bit more tired in the second and third sets,” he said. “That of course made me make more errors – he’s better than me physically now.”

The creative Ukrainian has won many fans in New York this week, and not just for his tennis. His pleasure in playing shines through, even in defeat: “I was having fun just stepping on the court: so many people, playing Novak. Just happy to play tennis.”

Judging from the smile on Djokovic’s face during that tie-breaker, he was having a ball, too.

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