NEW YORK – Novak Djokovic said late last week that he had no lingering feelings of anger over not being allowed into the country for last year’s US Open, due to travel restrictions then in place for those not vaccinated against the coronavirus. At the time, Djokovic, who was on top form after winning Wimbledon earlier in the year, was left unable to claim his fourth title here after winning in 2011, 2015 and 2018 and losing just one match a calendar year earlier. Grand Slam in 2021.
“No, there was no anger. I felt bad during last year’s tournament that I wasn’t there,” he said. “I felt sad not being able to participate.
“But this year, I mean, this year. I don’t think about what happened last year or the last two years. I just focus on this year’s tournament.”
Focus is one way to describe how Djokovic looked over the two rounds. Dominant might be a better word.
It’s no surprise, as the 36-year-old is set to become the number one player in the world again no matter how the rest of the tournament goes, but with two rounds to spare, Djokovic has managed to take down two opponents below him. That included Wednesday afternoon, when he easily beat Bernabé Zapata Miralles at Arthur Ashe Stadium, 6-4, 6-1, 6-1. It was his second consecutive straight sets win, including a late Monday night/Tuesday morning first round victory over Alexander Mueller.
Zapata Mirales produced an impressive performance on Wednesday in the first set before Djokovic quickly overtook him in the second and third sets. And he achieved 35 successful strikes compared to 15 for the Spaniard and broke his serve six times without losing any match on his serve.
“(Zapata Miralles) started strong. We had some rallies. But, you know, one break was enough,” Djokovic said of the first half. “After that, in the second set I played really well. At the start of the third period, it was a couple of close games, but for the last four games of the third period, I ended up playing really well.
Djokovic’s first two matches are a continuation of his performances from earlier this month at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, where he won the title, including a three-set victory in the final over new rival Carlos Alcaraz. It’s still early days for the tournament, but the excitement is certainly already building over Djokovic’s ability to take on the Spanish top seed in the final here. Naturally, these two players also played an epic final at Wimbledon this past July, which Alcaraz won in a memorable five sets.
Alcaraz even joked after his first-round victory on Tuesday that he would try to regain the world No. 1 ranking as soon as possible, even if he couldn’t technically do so in New York.
“I knew (Djokovic) would regain first place after the US Open,” Alcaraz said. “When the tournament is over, I will try to recover as quickly as possible. That’s my goal. I’m working for it.”
But that is something Alcaraz and Djokovic could be interested in later on. For now, Djokovic will try to derail Alcaraz’s dreams of becoming the first back-to-back US Open champion since Roger Federer in 2007 and 2008.
Why was it so difficult for players to replicate it here?
Djokovic has a theory.
“It could be the end of the season in a way,” he said last week. “It’s the last Grand Slam of the year. It’s been a tough eight months of tennis for all the players. That’s probably why you see more upsets in this Grand Slam than in some of the other Grand Slams. That’s the one thing that comes to my mind truly.”
In the next round, Djokovic will face fellow Serbian Laslo Diri, ranked 38 in the world. They’ve met once before, in 2022 in Belgrade, and it was a close encounter, with Djokovic winning 2-6 7-6(6) 7-6(4) in a match that lasted three hours and 21 minutes. Geary, 28, has two singles titles but this will be his first time in the third round at the US Open in six attempts.
Djokovic said that although his best surface is clay, Jiri is “playing (some of) his best on hard courts at the moment”. “He’s in very good shape. It’s great for Serbian tennis that we have a third-round clash. … He’s one of the hardest workers on the tour.
Hard worker or not, Djere will be busy with a guy who can be on a mission after having to watch from home a year ago. Djokovic’s half-draw is the weaker half and has already seen nine of his 16 ranked players lose, including the top three post-Djokovic No. 2 – No. 4 Holger Rohn, No. 5 Casper Ruud and No. 7 Stefanos Tsitsipas.
He is the favorite to reach the final, where Alcaraz may be waiting for him, and perhaps his 24th Grand Slam title to extend his all-time men’s record could follow.
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(Top photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)