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Steve Flink: Djokovic bounces back emphatically and lands in semifinals

1/22/2013 2:00:00 PM

The test of authenticity for all tennis champions is responding to a crisis, dealing with an unexpectedly arduous match when they next step on court, and successfully confronting the inevitable rigors of a fortnight at a major. Across the last couple of years, no one has displayed larger powers of recuperation and durability than the one and only Novak Djokovic. At the 2011 U.S. Open, for the second year in a row, he saved two match points en route to a five set semifinal triumph over Roger Federer. And yet, he still had the strength and the gumption to account for Rafael Nadal in an unimaginably physical and demanding four set, final round appointment.  More than four months later, Djokovic halted Andy Murray in a five set Australian Open semifinal, holding court for four hours and 50 minutes. He returned a few days later for the final and prevailed in the longest ever Grand Slam tournament final, overcoming the incomparable Rafael Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 to retain his crown in five hours and 53 minutes.

The pattern continued during the 2012 French Open, when Djokovic rallied from two sets to love down to defeat Andreas Seppi one round before saving four match points in another five set collision with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He then took apart Federer in a straight sets semifinal before losing a hard fought, four set final with Nadal. Time and again, Djokovic has somehow found the resilience to keep moving beyond himself no matter how much he has been battered in the harsh arena of competition. Over the course of this compelling 2013 Australian Open, as he strives to establish himself as the first man to capture three consecutive titles at the major “Down Under” in the Open Era, Djokovic is demonstrating once more that he can withstand just about anything that he faces at the sport’s showcase events.

He was in sparkling form over the first three rounds against Paul-Henri Mathieu, Ryan Harrison and Radek Stepanek. Not once in those three straight set victories did Djokovic lose his serve. He looked confident and serene. He seemed in utter control of his own destiny. But suddenly Stan Wawrinka took his game to a level he had never reached before. The 27-year-old Swiss had lost ten times in a row against Djokovic. He has spent most of the last five years ranked anywhere between No. 13 and No. 21 in the world, although he did attain top ten status for a while in 2008. Most pundits envisioned a routine three or perhaps four set win for Djokovic over his longtime rival.

Yet the Djokovic-Wawrinka contest was anything but routine. They battled furiously for five hours and two minutes, across five captivating sets, through the late evening and on into the early hours of the next morning. Although Djokovic played only sporadically brilliant tennis when judged by his normally lofty standards, Wawrinka was almost out of this world. From his standpoint, there must have been a surrealistic feeling to it all. He has been a brilliant shotmaker all through his career. He has a scintillating one-handed backhand, a highly underrated first serve, and the propensity to play a superb brand of tennis.

The fact remains that Wawrinka has been known for his sporadic brilliance, not his consistency. On this memorable occasion against the world No. 1, Wawrinka was consistently brilliant, and brilliantly consistent. That is something I have seldom seen from him before, certainly not in a big match at a Grand Slam event. To be sure, he upended Andy Murray in the third round of the 2010 U.S. Open on his way to the quarterfinals, producing a first class and often dazzling performance. He has played other terrific matches at the premier events. But what he did for five sets against Djokovic the other day was nothing short of stupendous. With Djokovic strangely wayward off the ground and not serving with his customary authority and precision, Wawrinka built a commanding 6-1, 5-2 lead.

Djokovic was in a serious bind, in grave danger of going behind two sets to love. He held his serve but Wawrinka seemed poised to close the second set out, moving to a 5-3, 30-0 lead. But Wawrinka has always had two primary weaknesses: a suspect forehand that can get away from him and cause him misery, and a fragile mentality. Wawrinka tightens up considerably almost habitually against the leading players, with rare exceptions. That is what happened to him at this crucial moment against Djokovic in the round of 16 of the 2013 Australian Open. A two set lead might have been just enough of a psychological cushion for Wawrinka to go on to record the most substantial win of his career.

Fortunately for Djokovic, Wawrinka fell into disarray. From 30-0, Wawrinka missed four straight first serves and surrendered four points in a row. Djokovic made an aggressive forehand return to rush Wawrinka into a forehand mistake on the first of those points, but Wawrinka gave away the last three on a silver platter with glaring unforced errors. Djokovic rolled through that set on a run of five straight games, secured the third set, and battled his way into a fourth set tie-break. He had never lost a tie-break to Wawrinka in their career head-to-head series.

History did not repeat itself. Wawrinka was remarkable in that sequence, while Djokovic was surprisingly apprehensive. The Swiss prevailed seven points to five. On to a fifth set they went, and Wawrinka broke in the opening game. Djokovic swiftly retaliated, breaking back in timely fashion. Wawrinka was getting his legs rubbed by the trainer at the changeovers, and he seemed to be moving beyond his physical limits. But he was performing almost entirely on adrenaline, inspired by an audience who spurred him on with their deep appreciation of his play. With Wawrinka serving at 2-3, 15-30 in that fifth set, Djokovic had a sizeable opening, but missed a forehand down the line into the net tape. Under ordinary circumstances, Djokovic could make that shot 99 out of 100 times. Wawrinka held on for 3-3. But soon Stan was in jeopardy again. At 3-4, with the match four hours old, he served his first double fault of the match to give Djokovic a break point.

The Serbian squandered it, missing another of his trademark down the line forehands into the net tape with Wawrinka in obvious trouble. Soon it was 4-4, and Djokovic had his back to the wall. He anxiously punched an easy forehand crosscourt volley wide and was down 15-40. Djokovic erased the first break point with a gusty backhand drop shot down the line that Wawrinka could not handle. Wawrinka erred at 30-40, driving a topspin backhand into the net. Yet he earned two more break points, only to waste both with errant forehands—one during a rally and the second on an aggressive return of serve. Djokovic kept his composure and held serve for 5-4.

In this fifth hour of the match, both players were striking the ball beautifully but their return games diminished considerably as fatigue set in on both sides of the net. From the time Wawrinka served to stay in the match at 4-5 until he served at 10-11, the Swiss won 24 of 30 points in six service games. In his six service games, Djokovic was even better, winning an astounding 24 of 27 points in that span. With Wawrinka serving in the 22nd game, the Swiss led 40-15 but Djokovic took three points in a row to earn his first match point. Wawrinka wiped it away with a scorching service winner down the T. Wawrinka saved a second match point with a spectacular backhand down the line winner behind Djokovic. Wawrinka had a couple more game points but Djokovic fought on tenaciously until he garnered a third match point. On the 20th shot of an artistic exchange, after Djokovic had made a couple of phenomenal stabs off his backhand at full stretch, the Serbian connected with a signature yet magnificently angled backhand passing shot acutely crosscourt.

Djokovic had prevailed 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 12-10 in five hours and two minutes. Wawrinka has never played a more complete match. His forehand was strikingly reliable, his backhand down the line was astonishing, his will to win unbending. His defense was outstanding off both sides as he confounded Djokovic by prolonging rallies repeatedly with sheer obstinacy. Djokovic had simply found a way to win on a day when he was nowhere near the top of his game. But, most importantly, the 25-year-old Serbian had been stretched to his physical limits by an opponent who caught him off guard.

The Serbian had a day off after that debilitating contest, but would that be enough? The answer was evident from the outset last night against Berdych in the quarterfinals. Djokovic clearly realized he needed to commence this battle much more purposefully than he had started against Wawrinka, and he did just that. In the first set, he was sharp, aggressive and strategically sound from the outset. After Berdych held routinely in the opening game, Djokovic went to work and played boldly and freely, sweeping six games in a row to seal that set easily. He held at love for 1-1, broke Berdych in a two deuce game (closing out that break with a forehand crosscourt winner on the 22nd stroke of a stirring exchange and then a classic backhand down the line winner), held at 15 for 3-1, and then broke Berdych for 4-1.

At break point in that fifth game, Djokovic displayed his patience and assertiveness simultaneously, winning a 21 stroke rally as Berdych pressed, missing a forehand down the line. Djokovic held at love for 5-1 and then broke a beleaguered Berdych again in the sixth game as the No. 5 seed desperately went for a second serve ace down the T at 30-40, losing that gamble with a double fault. Set to Djokovic, 6-1.

Berdych, however, was not ready to acquiesce. He made his move quickly at the start of the second set, breaking Djokovic in the opening game. Berdych shifted the tempo of play, started dictating with his power and depth off both sides, and came forward whenever he could. He got the break with a typically flat and pure forehand inside out winner. With Djokovic serving at 1-3, 15-40, Berdych was primed to break open the set but Djokovic was resolute, sweeping four points in a row for the hold. At 3-5, Djokovic was set point down but he belted his way out of that precarious corner with a big forehand eliciting a backhand long from Berdych.

Djokovic was determined to come from behind to win the second set. With Berdych serving for the set at 5-4, Djokovic reached 15-40 but Berdych served an ace and then made an impressive forehand winner off a low backhand slice from the Serbian. Twice more, Djokovic advanced to break point, but Berdych erased one with a clean backhand winner and Djokovic squandered the other with an inside-out forehand unforced error wide. On set point, Berdych intelligently approached right down the middle to the Djokovic forehand, and the Serbian pulled his passing shot wide. It was one set all.

Djokovic was unperturbed. He regained his command of the match in a hurry. In racing to a 5-0 lead in the pivotal third set, Djokovic collected 20 of 27 points with aplomb. He took the set 6-1, and then broke Berdych to move ahead 2-1 in the fourth. His defense did the damage in that game as the Serbian coaxed Berdych into mistakes. On his way to a 5-4 lead, Djokovic conceded only one point in four service games, but Berdych made the favorite work exceedingly hard in the tenth game of that fourth and final set. The No. 5 seed saved three match points with the Serbian serving for the match, but Djokovic persisted, sealing a semifinal slot on the fourth with an ace down the T. Djokovic claimed victory over Berdych 6-1, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 with high efficiency, affirming that he had recovered remarkably well from the Wawrinka extravaganza.

And so Djokovic has reached eleven consecutive penultimate rounds at the Grand Slam events. He will confront No. 4 seed David Ferrer in the semifinals. With another day off before he takes on the indefatigable Spaniard, Djokovic should recuperate from the marathon with Wawrinka even more thoroughly. Ferrer, of course, had his own crisis against compatriot Nicolas Almagro last night. Almagro served for the match once in the third set and twice in the fourth but cramped up and bowed out tamely in the fifth. I have no doubt that Ferrer will summon all of his considerable resources to give everything he has to beat Djokovic, but it is hard to imagine him toppling the top seed. Djokovic has held the upper hand against Ferrer for a long while.

Meanwhile, both Murray and Federer will be looking to earn their places in the semifinals. The end of this first Grand Slam tournament of 2013 is shaping up very well. But the feeling grows that Djokovic is going to be the last man standing.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.