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Thursday, September 5, 2013
Djokovic back in familiar territory

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Two hours before he took the Arthur Ashe court in an official capacity, Novak Djokovic was out there scuffling in the wind with practice partner Radek Stepanek.

The same Radek Stepanek who, along with partner Leander Paes, sent the Bryans brothers' Grand Slam hopes to the shower earlier Thursday in the same venue.

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic's road to the final became a lot easier after Andy Murray lost.
At one point, Stepanek ripped a forehand past Djokovic and, comically, raised his arms and solicited applause from the several dozen workers scattered around the stadium. Djokovic, the No. 1 seed here, grimaced in mock horror and held his head in his hands.

That was about as close as he came to any kind of danger against No. 21 seed Mikhail Youzhny. Djokovic was anything but Youzh-er friendly, whacking him 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-0.

"I've always tried to play my tennis best in the Grand Slams," Djokovic said afterward. "This is the biggest stadium we have in sport. The atmosphere is electric. I was really enjoying the whole match.

"I played really well except that third set, but credit to him."

Djokovic was not especially sharp, making 45 unforced errors, versus only 32 winners.

His serve was broken twice.

With all these living legends hanging around -- Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal could retire with the most Grand Slam singles titles -- it's easy to take Djokovic's sustained excellence for granted.

This is the 14th consecutive time he has reached the semifinal threshold of a major; for more than three years, he hasn't missed, a remarkable run that only one man in history has surpassed. Yes, Federer made 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals, from 2004 to '10. The best Rod Laver and Ivan Lendl (tied for third on the all-time list) could do was 10.

The last time Djokovic fell short of the semifinals in a major? Three years ago when Jurgen Melzer needed five sets to beat him in the quarters at Roland Garros.

The consensus is that Djokovic has had a tough year. If that means winning the Australian Open, an ATP Masters 1000 in Monte Carlo (ending Nadal's 46-match win streak at the event) and the tournament in Dubai, well, most of us would take it. A win here might just be enough to make him the player of the year.

Djokovic's path to the title got a lot easier when Stanislas Wawrinka took out No. 3-seeded Andy Murray in straight sets. Murray admitted that winning the Wimbledon title he's coveted for so long might have sent him into the US Open with a little less than the requisite fire.

And, Djokovic had the advantage of momentum coming into the Youzhny match. In Djokovic's previous match, he lost a total of three games to Marcel Granollers; the 31-year-old Russian went five sets with Lleyton Hewitt. Djokovic, believe it or not, is the youngest of the four men's semifinalists.

Youzhny looked pretty frisky in the opening game, forcing two break points on Djokovic's serve. But the 26-year-old Serb, moving Youzhny from side to side with a purpose, saved them and won the game with a forehand winner. And then he came right back to break Youzhny for a 2-0 lead. He won the first set -- on his third set point -- by returning an in-close overhead from Youzhny and watching as the volley reply fell into the net.

This set off a mad Djokovic backpedaling celebration that was punctuated by a vicious uppercut.

There was only one unforeseen disaster along the way to victory: a dropped set in the third. He had won all 14 sets he'd played here previously, which means Neale Fraser will continue to be the last man to win this thing without dropping a set, back in 1960.

Youzhny actually has three wins over Djokovic for his career, but all three came indoors; Arthur Ashe is as big and wide as the outdoors gets. The Russian also beat Nadal in the quarterfinals here seven years ago -- but he was only 20.

Now, Djokovic meets Wawrinka in a Saturday semifinal.

"It's going to be a very close match for both of us" Djokovic said. "Today he showed he deserves to be in the top 10. He played some of his best tennis I've seen on the hard courts."