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After Rafael Nadal withdrew and Andy Roddick retired and Roger Federer stumbled earlier than expected,the US Open spotlight again settled on Novak Djokovic,at once the worlds second-ranked player and,for most of this tournament,an afterthought. Remember him? Djokovic deserved more in this years Open. More attention. More platitudes. More respect. He earned all that the hard way,each victory more emphatic than the last,until in the past two days he suddenly became the favourite.
He won his quarterfinal against Juan Martín del Potro on Thursday,in front of a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium. Their contest,a taut,tense,thrilling 6-2 7-6 (3) 6-4 victory for Djokovic,was a testament to this golden age of mens tennis.
No Federer,no Nadal,no problem. I still feel that we are having a really good tournament, Djokovic said.
Djokovic entered the Open as defending champion. In the year since his New York triumph,all he did was win the Australian Open,advance to the final of the French Open,make the semifinals of every tournament he played in except one and hold the No.1 ranking deep into the season.
What Djokovic did not do is replicate 2011 season,one of the single best campaigns in the history. There is no shame in that. Last year,he basically won every match for six months. At one point,he won 66 of 68 contests. He captured three of the four Grand Slams.
In the process,he also set an impossibly high bar. Only under this odd set of circumstances could two Slam victories in one season Djokovics total should he win the Open be considered an off year.
When Djokovic regressed in 2012,Federer took Wimbledon and retook the No.1 ranking. Andy Murray made the Wimbledon final and seized an Olympic gold medal. Djokovic again shifted to the back burner. Even Nadal,who skipped the Open with a knee injury,factored into the early Open buzz more than Djokovic. Even though Nadal never set foot in New York. On Thursday,in the final match of the final weeknight session,Djokovic turned his attention to del Potro,the 2009 champion.
Del Potro boomed three speeds of serves at Djokovic: fast,faster and fastest. In the first set,del Potro placed 83 percent of his first serves in and Djokovic, still broke serve twice.
Del Potro obtained his own break in the first game of the second set,and Djokovic spent the rest of that set trying to scratch back in. His chance came when del Potro served for the set,ahead by 5-4. On break point,Djokovic stabbed a backhand return that somehow landed in. He chased shots that seemed out of reach. Del Potro sailed a forehand long.
The match quality only improved from there. Del Potro fought off three set points to send the second set into a tiebreaker,where Djokovic again proved impenetrable. He won with defense,with backhands hit flat and hard up the line that managed to land inside. In one long rally,Djokovic lobbed a volley,chased down a return and won the point with a drop shot.
In the semifinals,Djokovic will play David Ferrer,a player nicknamed Little Beast. Ferrer outlasted Janko Tipsarevic 6-3 6-7 (5) 2-6 6-3 7-6 (4),in a contest that may have been the most entertaining of the tournament. Ferrer,in the midst of a career season at age 30,holds a 5-8 career mark against Djokovic.
On Saturday,the semifinalists will make history this will mark the first time both Federer and Nadal failed to advance to the semifinals since 2004. It mattered little Thursday,when Djokovic looked like Djokovic,circa 2011 the same guy who faced match point in last years semifinals against Federer and ripped a return that was all moxie and guts.