For more than an hour in the afternoon sunshine, Novak Djokovic played with the distracted air of a man with a prior appointment – which, of course, he has in New York, starting on 31 August – before rousing himself to reach the final of the Cincinnati Masters.
He might be the logical favourite to win the US Open but there will be a leakage of smart money elsewhere after a faltering three-set win over Alexandr Dolgopolov exposed at least minor concerns about his fitness and form nine days before the action starts at Flushing Meadows.
Midway through beating the unorthodox Ukrainian 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2 in the first semi-final in less than killing heat over two hours and 20 minutes, he was forced to take painkillers to relieve a stomach strain that appeared to strike at the beginning of his service action. After worries about his elbow surfaced last week in Montreal, where he lost in the Rogers Cup final to Andy Murray, Djokovic looks vulnerable.
He attempted to laugh it off immediately afterwards. “It’s OK,” he said. “It’s a boy” – but he and his team will be more candid with each other in private conversations on the eve of the final major of the season.
“The doctor gave me a few nice pills and the pain went away,” Djokovic said glibly. “I thought I played a very good match [to beat Stan Wawrinka for the loss of only five games] and today I was just winning with a fighting spirit, that’s all. I don’t think I played too good. But credit to Alex. He was very close to winning this match. I stayed tough and always believed I could pull it out.”
Although he is deservedly the runaway No1 player in the rankings – only Murray and Wawrinka have beaten him in his past 45 matches – Djokovic started lethargically in this tournament, which he has never won.
While Wawrinka, ranked No4 in the world, has had to deal with off-court drama and a dip in form since beating Djokovic to win the French Open, Dolgopolov, who is No66, came to the semi-final with nothing to lose and much to gain. Victory would have secured him a giant leap in the rankings and a seeding in New York.
He can scarcely have imagined when beating James Ward on an outside court here seven days previously that he would be the only qualifier since David Wheaton in 1994 to reach the semi-finals – and he came scarily close to becoming the first such in the Open era to make the final.
Djokovic began as if he wished he were on the nearby golf course, double-faulting and moving sluggishly to give up his serve in the third game. The lethargy that characterised his laboured wins over Benoît Paire and David Goffin – who took a set off him in the third round – seemed to have enveloped him again.
He had plenty of incentive, needing this title to complete a collection of all nine ATP Masters. But he appeared strangely disinterested. A set down and struggling to hold serve for 3-2 in the second, Djokovic called for the trainer, grimacing as he pressed his stomach muscles. He returned to the court to test the injury, and seemed comfortable enough.
The last time Djokovic retired during a match he was a set and a break down in the Davis Cup against Juan Martín del Potro in 2011; that year, he also quit with a shoulder injury in the final here, against Murray. He subsequently turned himself into something of an iron man.
They traded breaks – and then the umpire, Carlos Bernardes, stopped play on Dolgopolov’s serve at 15-all in the ninth game to single out a loudmouth in the crowd, who appeared to be wearing a Serbian football shirt, and reminded him: “This is the second or third time. People are here to watch tennis, not listen to you. Please watch the tennis.”
Dolgopolov held twice to stay in the set, forcing a tie-break. Djokovic sealed it with a strong, flat forehand into the deuce corner, restoring parity and court presence after an hour and 42 minutes.
Within 20 minutes, Djokovic broke, and Dolgopolov took what looked suspiciously like a strategic courtside break for some running repairs on his blistered feet.
After a seven-minute rest, he still could not slow Djokovic’s charge. The Serb saved break point for 3-1, broke without fuss for 4-1, stuttered unconvincingly to 5-1, helped by Dolgopolov’s growing weariness, and, after a tired sixth double fault, Djokovic was in the final.
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