World No 1 Novak Djokovic played only his third full match in the semi-finals, trouncing a tired and struggling Gael Monfils in four sets. The match had also seen controversy, with many alleging that Monfils had not made an effort against the Serb, highlighted by the fact that the tall Frenhcman had not even dropped a set going into the semifinal.
Now, Djokovic, who won the title here last year, is looking to defend it – and in doing so, take his third US Open title win. His road there does not promise to be easy, however, with the Serb up against a man who has become his nemesis at Grand Slams – Swiss ace Stan Wawrinka.
Although Wawrinka has consistently remained high in the ATP rankings, he has had middling success on the circuit of late. That said, his US Open run picked up some powerful momentum from the quarter-finals, with the Swiss clawing deep from that stage. Perhaps the highlight of his entire open so far was Wawrinka’s quarter-final match against Juan Martin del Potro, who has recently returned to the circuit after recovering from injury, with immense success.
With staggering consistency, Wawrinka played back-to-back long four setters, putting his signature backhand on display, using it to excellent effect.
Wawrinka, a two-time Grand Slam champion himself, has been a thorn in Djokovic’s side twice already at Grand Slam finals. The Swiss put paid to Djokovic’s Calendar Slam in 2015, and postponed his career slam by a year, defeating the Serb on the clay courts of Roland Garros.
The previous year, he had trounced Rafael Nadal on the hard courts of the Australian Open to take his maiden title at the Grand Slam stage.
Although the 19-4 head-to-head record makes it seem as though Djokovic has had a very easy time of Wawrinka, the Swiss has been able to trump him at key moments.
Significantly, every time the two have met each other at the Grand Slam level, Wawrinka has threatened to defeat Djokovic; the last time Djokovic beat Wawrinka in straight sets at a Grand Slam was over a decade ago, showing just how powerful an opponent the Swiss has been.
Wawrinka’s one-handed backhand has been one of the biggest shots on the tour, and it has been showcased to stellar effect here at Flushing Meadows, especially this year.
How do their playing styles match up?
Both Djokovic and Wawrinka are baseline specialists – Wawrinka aggressive, and Djokovic defensive. The Serb prefers long-drawn-out rallies, and has the ability to hold himself both physically and mentally, key in a stage like this.
But Wawrinka, although famous for smashing racquets, also manages to hold himself mentally at the Grand Slam stage, where it really matters. Although he sticks to the baseline, Wawrinka also employed serve-and-volley in a number of matches this US Open, and is more than capable of the technique.
That said, both players are more than capable of employing different techniques, but Djokovic has the upper hand here on sheer athleticism alone. An all-round player, the Serb has dominated across surfaces – and even prior to winning his maiden French Open title this year, was one of the most dominant clay-court players in the men’s game.
Both players have incredibly strong backhands, but the Serb wins hands down in terms of on-court movement given his agility.
Mentally, Novak Djokovic was, and is still, by many, considered one of the strongest in the game. To put this in perspective, Rafael Nadal, considered perhaps the greatest clay-court player in the history of the game, has in the past few years appeared to lose several battles, including at the Grand Slam stage, mentally before he loses physically.
Now, however, struggling with an aching wrist and what he describes as ‘significant personal problems’, Djokovic has evidently not been in his own ideal form – this, despite having won two Grand Slam titles already, including his maiden French Open title – breaking his so-called ‘curse’ at the venue.
The Serb missed out on defending his title at Wimbledon with an unexpected third-round loss to Sam Querrey of the United States, whose big serves Djokovic was unable to return effectively in spite of the Serb being considered perhaps the ‘best returner in the game’.
Djokovic has only played three full matches coming into the finals, making him well-rested ahead of the ‘Big One’. Wawrinka, on the other hand, has had to dig deep for his victories, although he has in fact pulled out stellar tennis each time. Fatigue could affect the Swiss, who looked to be in some form of physical discomfort during his quarter-final against Del Potro.
Given his record and period of rest, one would have to give this to Novak Djokovic. That said, however, it is unlikely to be an easy battle for the Serb given his history with his Swiss rival, and the fact that Wawrinka has put a stopper to his success at the most crucial moments.
It’s going to be a battle both mental and physical for Djokovic at Arthur Ashe stadium tonight, and although physically, Djokovic may have a more rounded game, Wawrinka seems to hold the upper hand mentally.
Prediction: Novak Djokovic to win in five sets