US Open 2016: Novak Djokovic confidence rises with second free ride; now it’s fearless Kyle Edmund
Novak Djokovic will face Kyle Edmund in the fourth round of the US Open after Mikhail Youzhny withdrew with an injury
If Novak Djokovic looked a little less than his precision best in the first match of his title defence in New York, perhaps it was with good reason.
With his victory at the French Open this year, the world No1 completed his personal Grand Slam and became one of the rare breed to hold all four Majors at the same time.
But that was just the latest in a two-year dominance that marked him as one of the greatest in the game, for his victory at Roland Garros was his sixth Major trophy in his last nine, and the other three comprised two runner-up finishes and a semi-final run at the US Open two years ago.
During the same span, he won 11 Masters crowns, reached three more finals, and overtook the Master of the Masters, Rafael Nadal to reach 29—since adding Toronto, 30.
But such achievements come at a cost. Seven titles in 2014 and just eight lost matches; 11 titles last year, and a remarkable 82-6 tally; and thus far in 2016, seven titles courtesy of 51 wins and five losses. Having put so much emotional and physical effort into winning the French Open, he came into Wimbledon with only three match losses—one of those due to an eye infection—but clearly weary, and he lost his rain-disrupted third-round match at Wimbledon.
He bounced back to win the Toronto Masters, but along the way picked up a problem with his left wrist, lost in the first round of the Olympics, and pulled out of Cincinnati.
So his opening match against the big-hitting Jerzy Janowicz was watched with great interest. It was not, in truth, his finest match, and he took physio treatment to his right arm mid-match, but he came through in four sets, saying: “I take it day by day. I’m pleased that as the match progressed I was feeling better and better.”
His next match promised to be even more challenging, bringing another tall big-hitting young player tipped for the top. Jiri Vesely, 23 and ranked 49, suffered his own injury problems this year, but not before delivering one of those three defeats to Djokovic in Monte Carlo.
Vesely, though, withdrew after a tough five-set opener with an arm injury: Djokovic got a pass to the third round and a little more time to get that arm and shoulder into good working order.
That set a meeting with a man cut from a very different cloth, the veteran Russian Mikhail Youzhny, who has also had his share of injuries over the years.
But in between problems, and studying for a doctorate, the Russian scored some of his best results at the US Open in his 15 years on the Grand Slam circuit. A former top-10 player, he has twice been a semi-finalist in New York, and reached the quarters in 2013.
And while Youzhny has not so much as reached the final of a tournament since 2013, and slipped to 153 at the end of last year, he began 2016 with three straight Challenger titles, before illness and a hamstring pull marred his season. And that latter injury proved to be very significant.
With just six games on the board and 32 minutes on the clock, Youzhny threw in the towel at 2-4 down. If Djokovic needed time to rehab that shoulder, the tournament was delivering it.
He was afterwards asked if his lack of match-play was a good or a bad thing: “Considering the stage of the season, the amount of matches I’ve played, what I’ve been through with my body, I think it’s actually good to have some days off and then shorter matches… Sure, as you are approaching the second week of a Grand Slam you want to have match-play and you want to have time on the centre court before you face one of the top players.
“But, again, I’m not too concerned about my game itself. I’ve worked hard last couple days. Health-wise I feel much better than I did at the beginning of the tournament… the arm is doing very well. Everything is going in the right direction.”
Djokovic’s campaign, of course, has significance in various ways, not least in the rankings. Andy Murray has closed the gap between No1 and 2 with alacrity since the clay season. But it also had significance for Murray’ colleague, Kyle Edmund.
When the draw was made more than a week ago, 21-year-old Edmund, ranked 84, fell into the Serb’s quarter, but with the line-up he faced before that, any idea of a meeting between them seemed fanciful.
In the very first round, he faced No13 seed Richard Gasquet, but he beat the Frenchman in an extraordinarily straightforward manner, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3, to claim his first ever main-draw win at the US Open.
Then he put out the talented young wild card, Ernesto Escobedo, also in straight sets. This time, it achieved Edmund’s first third-round run at any Major. Now came a task on an even bigger scale, No20 seed John Isner.
Louis Armstrong court was packed for the home man. But if there was ever a chance for the increasingly confident, increasingly fit Edmund, it was now. Isner had come through two long, hard marches totalling six and a half hours, and played nine sets to Edmund’s six. And it showed.
Edmund’s destructive serve, massive forehand and ever-improving backhand pummelled the width of the court with weight and accuracy. He broke in the fifth game of the first set and served it out, 6-4, in 31 minutes.
Isner found more intensity in the second set and broke straight away, fought off a break back point in the next game, and held to love for 6-3.
However, the quietly-spoken but resilient Briton was not fazed. He broke in the second game of the third, and served big to hold for 3-0. For good measure, he broke again for the set, 6-2.
Edmund slotted forehand passes, thumped returns at Isner’s feet, painted the lines with his serves—much to Isner irritation, as the American had run out of challenges. But they headed to a tie-break, not the best scenario against a man who cranked up a 137mph ace to make it 6-6, one of 27 in the match.
But again it was Edmund who edged the first advantage, Isner levelled with an ace at 3-3, the Briton took it to 6-3, and closed the match out in style with a huge forehand winner, 7-6(5).
Naturally the first question was about his unexpected match against Djokovic, who had beaten him in their only match just months back in Miami.
With classic Edmund understatement, he said: “It’s going to be a tough match. Playing the world No1 is always going to be tough. He’s there, rightly so, he’s been very consistent at a high level. I’ll learn from what happened at Miami. Playing Isner at the French Open helped me tonight, and maybe on Sunday it will help me again.”
Can the fairytale continue? Even if this is the end of Edmund’s journey in New York, it will be some way to finish—and surely just the start to the next chapter.