Stan Wawrinka is into this year’s US Open quarter-finals after a 6-4, 7-5, 2-1 win over defending champion Novak Djokovic. The world number one was clearly not at his best before retiring early in the third set to a chorus of boos, with a recurrence of his shoulder injury proving too painful to continue playing through and risk further aggravation.
Their H2H meeting was heavily in Novak’s favour (19-5) before this encounter, but even still you could sense this would be far from a straightforward victory for the Serbian if he was to earn his quarter-final berth. Considering the fact that he’d already endured an injury scare this week at Flushing Meadows, while Wawrinka was full of confidence and rightly bullish about his chances, this was always going to be an intriguing watch.
So you could almost excuse the crowd’s excitement at the Swiss star’s defiance when he presented Djokovic with an early break point opportunity – before two blistering aces and an emphatic finish at the net quickly remedied that situation. That was to make the scores 2-2 on serve. The very next game, Djokovic was overtly aggressive with his forehand returns and gifted Stan three break points. He didn’t need them all to earn a slender but deserved advantage.
Stan’s lead continued to grow as he again saved break points to take a 4-2 lead on serve. Winning five successive points, including three punishing aces, it was fast-paced tennis at its finest between two of the best. Both then established swift holds of serve, with Novak serving to stay in the set at 5-3.
You could sense something wasn’t right by how quickly he was manoeuvring after each point, getting increasingly restless as any sliver of control he might have earned was quickly snatched away from him. Those break opportunities were long gone and despite making it 5-4, Stan won an enthralling rally before his devastating serving continued. 6-4, the Swiss was ahead.
Eight aces and 85% first serves won said it all, compared to Djokovic’s 67% and a frustrating tendency to overshoot whenever he attempted to be aggressive. That only proved to play into Stan’s repertoire, as his excellent serving was dictating points and everyone knows he possesses hard-hitting power from the baseline – one of very few ATP players that can match Djokovic in that regard, despite his fantastic shot defence.
However, the age-old question remained: how long could it last? Novak, even when he’s losing, will make life difficult for opponents and push them to uncomfortable situations, testing their endurance and consistency with long rallies and persistent pressure. So when he raced into a 3-0 second set lead and broke Wawrinka’s serve after some patchy serving from the Swiss, it was suddenly game on again.
Did you know? During their most recent meeting, three years ago in the US Open Final, Stan won in four tightly-contested sets. Djokovic was 3/17 on break point opportunities that evening.
Wawrinka holds firm, recovers from sluggish start in second set
Stan endured a few frustrating moments but managed to get himself on the board at 3-1 with a good service hold, before the match’s complexion shifted drastically again. 30-0 up on serve, two successive forehand errors and another overshooting error meant Djokovic presented Wawrinka with a lifeline in a set that he really should have cruised to level the scoring. Despite recovering to go 4-1, those nervy moments were precisely what the 34-year-old needed as encouragement to keep probing and pressing errors out of Novak – he got his reward soon enough.
Another strong service hold meant it was 4-2 and the onus was on Djokovic again to deliver the goods as he looked to close out the set. He did the opposite. Two consecutive double-faults on serve gifted Stan a 30-0 advantage before he’d even had a chance to return a ball. A typically booming backhand winner up the line granted him two more break points. Despite saving one, Novak was helpless to stop Stan from controlling another rally (on his second serve) before cutting a forlorn figure as he fired another forehand into the net.
4-3 Djokovic, the crowd were on their feet. Stan had shook off whatever serving hiccups he had early in the set and picked his level back up, holding serve again with power and precision. 4-4 it became. The longer rallies went, the more you favoured Wawrinka to come out on top. Are you reading that right? Yes, you are. He was feeding off the crowd’s energy, letting fly with excellent shots and forcing Novak into errors galore as the world number one trudged off, emotionless.
His success at the net was a rare saving grace, but even that wasn’t going to last long for Novak. Opting for drop shots so early in rallies gave Wawrinka an easy way to finish points and his reluctance to mix up his shot selection, add slice or try a different strategy essentially made him a sitting duck against someone who was firmly in the ascendancy.
5-4 Djokovic quickly turned into 7-5, second set Wawrinka and the match continued slipping away from the world number one, who had his timing and shot selection all wrong when it mattered most. He didn’t even seem to react when making errors, resigned to the fact this was all but over. Something was up.
Stan asked the umpire if he could be excused to change his shirt, such was his levels of perspiration after nearly 90 minutes on-court. Djokovic, who recorded a whopping 17 unforced errors in the second set (both players had just six winners), gestured for the trainer to come on and receive treatment while he waited.
Remind you of anything? He had ointment applied and rubbed onto his left shoulder, the same one he had hinted was giving him serious discomfort against Londero on Thursday and over the past fortnight.
His head was gone by this point though. So when he retired, having again dropped his serve to go 2-1 down in the third set, you knew precisely what the problem was. He had played through the pain barrier too long and it didn’t make sense to push any longer, not when he was performing like this.
Wawrinka, a deserved winner, will face Russia’s Daniil Medvedev on Tuesday in the quarter-finals. An inquest will naturally be held over Djokovic’s injury and its severity, which all things considered is a sour end to what has been a memorable year for the Serbian at Grand Slam tournaments.
He won in Australia, a semi-final defeat at Roland Garros and awe-inspiring comeback victory at Wimbledon in July, this quick turnaround just proved a step too far for the world no 1.