He is the No. 1-ranked player in the world, the best in his profession on hard courts, and in many ways overdue to capture a second US Open title. His game is tailor-made for the surface at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The man is 27, moving through his prime, and determined to do himself more justice at the major championships. Evaluate it from any angle or perspective, and the evidence abounds: Novak Djokovic remains the favorite to win the final Grand Slam championship of 2014, despite his surprisingly poor form during the Emirates Airline U.S. Open Series this summer.
The thoroughly professional Serb has been right in the thick of things at every US Open since 2007, when he turned the tournament upside down, not only with his play but with his remarkable impersonations of fellow players. That year, he got to the final in Arthur Ashe Stadium, and was up 6-5, 40-0 in the opening set against three-time defending champion Roger Federer. Djokovic had five set points in that crucial game but could not convert. In the second set, he had two more set points. But Federer’s match playing savvy, poise and experience carried the day as he ousted Djokovic 7-6, 7-6, 6-4.
Djokovic was outdone by Federer again in the 2008 and 2009 semifinals, but then he saved two match points in a stirring five-set semifinal triumph over Federer in 2010. Djokovic fell in the final to Rafael Nadal, who won his third major title in a row with a four set win. But Djokovic would rule at last in 2011 during the banner year of his career, toppling Federer from two sets down in the semifinals, saving two match points once more against the Swiss. In the final, Djokovic turned the tables on Nadal in four pulsating sets, taking his third major crown of the season and his tenth title overall; he would finish the year with a sterling 70-6 match record.
It seemed certain then that Djokovic would keep adding luster to his US Open record, but he suffered a pair of bruising setbacks in the 2012 and 2013 finals. Two years ago, he rallied from two sets down against Andy Murray but ultimately bowed in five sets. Last year, Djokovic was locked at one set all against Nadal but lost the pivotal third set after standing one point away from a two service break lead with the Spaniard serving at 0-2. At 4-4, Nadal was down 0-40 but he held on with gumption and moved inexorably toward a four set victory. Djokovic was devastated by his lost opportunities. Nadal triumphed 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.
Djokovic has been in five Open finals but has triumphed only once. The fact remains that across the past seven seasons, no one has been more consistent; not once has he missed the semifinal cut. The reasons for his enduring reliability are numerous. Djokovic is surely the game’s greatest service returner, and his returns are regularly even more telling on hard courts. Who will ever forget his scorching crosscourt forehand return winner at match point down against Federer three years ago? Moreover, Djokovic is more comfortable competing on hard courts than he is on any other surface. On cement, his ground game is almost unanswerable. He can use the speed of the courts to his advantage and the true bounce is thoroughly to his liking. He is a magnificent athlete who moves with alacrity on any surface, but oftentimes Djokovic slips on the red clay and he frequently loses his footing on the lawns.
Djokovic moves most comfortably on hard courts, but he must be concerned (yet not in a state of panic) about his recent setbacks against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the round of 16 at Toronto and Tommy Robredo in the same round at Cincinnati. That was not the essential Djokovic, who won back-to-back Masters 1000 hard court titles in the spring at Indian Wells and Miami. Djokovic has won four Australian Opens on hard courts; to be sure, the surface “Down Under” is not as quick as the US Open, but the Serb is entirely at home on any type of hard court.
Djokovic knows that he should have won at least two US Opens by now. He also realizes that he must recover his confidence swiftly in the early stages of the upcoming Open after a disconcerting summer; he needs to drive through the ball with his old conviction, particularly off his forehand side. In both Toronto and Cincinnati, Djokovic’s timidity from the backcourt was alarming to his legion of boosters. His return of serve was far below par in those tournaments.
The fact remains that he won his second Wimbledon on July 6, which was not that long ago. The players are all well aware that a top-of-the-line Djokovic will be awfully difficult to beat this year at the US Open. Djokovic will be as primed for this major as he has been for any big tournament in a very long while. The feeling grows that he will find a way to release his best brand of tennis at the last major championship of 2014. If he does, Djokovic will almost surely walk away with his eighth career Grand Slam singles crown.