Commentary

Djokovic toughest in crunch time

Updated: September 8, 2012, 11:09 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- From the long view, it is clear the topography of Saturday's semifinals has been forming for months.

It began in Australia and went through the summer, from Novak Djokovic's follow-up to 2011 to the void left by Rafael Nadal to waiting for Andy Murray.

Five years have elapsed since the final weekend of the U.S. Open possessed such a radical look, where only one semifinalist had a major win to his name, the rest looking for their first. In the quarters, Djokovic, Murray, David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych were all challenged in a particular way before triumphing.

In fact, the U.S. Open championship trophy stares at each of the four semifinalists, but each returns the stare from a totally different viewpoint.

The Champion: He has already won a major this year and played in the final of another. He's won five majors and is the best hard-court player in the world, but it wasn't until the second set of his raucous and scintillating quarterfinal with Juan Martin del Potro that the great Djokovic reminded the public in full dimension why he is quickly becoming one of the game's greatest players. And not only of an incredibly competitive generation, but of all time.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Emmanuel Dunand/Getty ImagesHe's had his travails this year, but Novak Djokovic is a heavy favorite to defend his championship.

Del Potro may own a reputation of not always being the toughest guy -- though he should receive nothing but applause for his gracious handling of sending Andy Roddick into retirement and careful handling of a moth that landed on the baseline during his match with Djokovic. But it should be noted that del Potro did not lose the match in straight sets as much as Djokovic took it from him in the kind of mesmerizing style that has become perhaps the most intimidating trademark in sports.

Against other opponents, del Potro's second set would likely have been enough to win, but Djokovic is reminiscent of the 1996-2001 New York Yankees championship teams that found a reserve of toughness as the moments grew darker, more desperate. After losing to Roger Federer in a lackluster performance in the Wimbledon semifinals, to Murray in the Olympics semifinals and to del Potro in the bronze-medal match, Djokovic has been slightly underestimated, perhaps considered distracted, maybe more motivated to become a king instead of remaining one. Throughout the summer he has obliquely referred to "personal issues."

Djokovic hasn't dropped a set in the tournament, but in the second set of the quarters, when he broke del Potro serving for the set at 5-4 and won in a tiebreaker, the old Djokovic was revived, the aura of invincibility restored. Del Potro was not only broken by Djokovic's formidable defense and ability to transform defense into a deadly offensive attack, but also by the return of an iron will that drifted a bit during the summer. Even though he really hadn't left, the indomitable Djokovic has returned.

The Miracle Worker: On its face, it would appear that Ferrer would be comfortable. He has overachieved. He is fifth in the world. He is in a semifinal here for the third time in his career, and while the big-dog challengers of the sport -- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Berdych, del Potro, Isner -- have the weapons and the upside, it is the consistent, relentless Ferrer who is ranked higher than all of them. The problem is that at the highest altitude, Ferrer almost never wins. He has never beaten Federer (0-13). He is 5-6 against Murray but never has beaten him off clay. He is 5-17 against Nadal, but he has beaten him at the Australian and U.S. Opens. He is 5-9 against Djokovic and never taken a set off him on hard courts. It was Djokovic who beat Ferrer in straights here in the 2007 semifinals. Throughout the tournament, it was Ferrer who benefited most from the Rafa void, the one who was considered the most vulnerable. He has struggled hard with his serve and has been exposed for the lack of risk and creativity in his game. In his terrific five-set win over Janko Tipsarevic, it was Tipsarevic who appeared the better player. Yet Ferrer is the one who is still alive. But to defeat Djokovic, Ferrer must pull off the miracle -- beating a player who is equally relentless, mentally tougher and with far more ability.

The Redeemed: By rights, when the experts projected size and skill sets, neither Ferrer nor Tsonga (and to some not even Murray) was supposed to challenge the big three as securely as Berdych, a 6-foot-5 powerhouse with a shotgun serve and forehand. He lost to Nadal in the 2010 Wimbledon final, but the rest hasn't yet come to pass. Berdych lost to del Potro in the round of 16 at Roland Garros this year and followed up with first-round losses at Wimbledon and the Olympics and third-round losses to Richard Gasquet and Milos Raonic at Masters events in Toronto and Cincinnati, respectively. Berdych has redeemed his year and has the kind of power game and accuracy that makes him dangerous on any court. Berdych, in many ways, owns similarities to Tsonga in that the talent to win a major is undeniable, but his tactics and toughness have not always been as reliable. Berdych is 4-2 lifetime against Murray, but the two have played on hard courts only once in the past five years, a straight-sets Murray win in Dubai this year. They've never met at the U.S. Open.

Although Ferrer remains at the top of the second tier of the world rankings, Berdych is the one who has the plus-level weapons to compete for a major. Berdych has something else that should make him a dangerous opponent for Murray: belief. He's beaten Federer in a major. He's beaten Murray in a major. He's 3-5 against Ferrer but never has faced him in a major or on a hard court. Djokovic is a different story. Berdych is just 1-9 against him, but the win came at Wimbledon the year he reached the final.

The Destined: It would make sense if Murray carried a nonplussed countenance. He has been here so many times before. Murray has made the semifinals in seven of the past eight majors, the only blemish being a loss to Ferrer in the quarters at Roland Garros this year. So much of the Murray story has been well-documented. He made the final here in 2008, losing to Federer. He's lost in Grand Slam finals four times, three times to Federer, the last being the emotional loss at Wimbledon, where Murray's heart was on display as much as his talent. The difference, however, is that Murray has appeared to be destined this year, not only in feel but also in deed. He lost a five-hour semifinal to Djokovic in Melbourne and the heartbreaker at Wimbledon. But a month later, he bested Djokovic and Federer to win gold at the Olympics. It was the first time in his career he had defeated Djokovic and Federer in the same tournament and only the second time he had beaten two of the big three to win a tournament.

Murray should even be optimistic about his checkered performance here, for outside of his motivated, dominant performance over Raonic in the fourth round, in which he reduced the dangerous Raonic into a one-dimensional threat, he has been ripe for defeat. Murray survived two tiebreakers with Feliciano Lopez and broke Marin Cilic after being down 6-3, 5-1 -- yet he is still in line to play for a championship. Djokovic is the favorite. Murray is the prodigy. Berdych is the dark horse and Ferrer is the underdog. The subplots are real and they will likely exist beyond this tournament, heading into the 2013 Australian Open. But the reality is the same as it has ever been: The title belongs to Djokovic -- and his challengers will require their very best to take it from him.