World number one and defending champion Novak Djokovic takes on third seed Stan Wawrinka in the US Open men’s singles final on Sunday.
Djokovic, contesting his 21st Grand Slam final and seventh at the US Open, is looking for his 13th major title and third at New York’s Flushing Meadows, to add to titles won last year and in 2011. Wawrinka, on the other hand, is in his first US Open final and will look to improve his record in Grand Slam finals to three out of three, to add to wins at the 2014 Australian Open and last year’s French Open.
Wawrinka trails 19-4 in his career meetings with Djokovic, but since the start of 2013, this rivalry, among the best in men’s tennis in recent times, hasn’t been as straightforward and one-sided as it appears on paper. That was when Wawrinka began working with Magnus Norman, and under the watchful eye of the Swede, Wawrinka has boosted both his game and his self-belief by several notches.
Since 2013, the pair has contested four thrilling five-set encounters and one four-setter. The Swiss may have lost five-setters in the Australian Open in 2013, 2015 and in New York three years ago, but his two biggest wins came in 2014, when he beat the Serb en route to the title, and last year, when Djokovic had little response to his brutal ball-striking in the final at Roland Garros.
Djokovic has won their last two meetings, at last year’s Paris and Cincinnati Masters, but it’s their play over the past two weeks that could prove decisive in this championship clash.
Since defeating Andy Murray to win his maiden French Open and complete the Career Slam in June, Djokovic has been on a bit of a slide. A third-round loss at Wimbledon and a first-round ouster at the Rio Olympics was punctuated by a record 30th Masters title at the Rogers Cup in Canada. The Serb, however, pulled out of the Cincinnati Masters just before New York with a nagging left-wrist issue. Coming in, he looked more vulnerable than he did invincible.
The draw gods have been particularly generous on the Serb, who became the first player in the Open Era to advance to the semifinals of a Slam with three retirements or walkovers, playing just two completed matches, and nine sets, out of five to reach the last four. In advancing to the final, Djokovic has played 13 sets over six matches, spending a total of eight hours, 58 minutes on court.
“This was the scenario that I needed and I wished for,” said Djokovic. “I got a lot of days off and recovered my body,” added the Serb. “Right now I’m feeling very close to the peak. That’s the position where I want to be.”
The danger that remains for Djokovic is that he has yet to be truly tested. The world number one responded well in dropping sets against Gael Monfils and Jerzy Janowicz but the result was never really in doubt.
Wawrinka appears to have built up the momentum required to test the Serb. The Swiss, in complete contrast to Djokovic, has taken the scenic route to the final, playing 23 sets over six matches and spending 17 hours, 54 minutes on court, almost double Djokovic’s time.
Wawrinka dropped a set each to Kei Nishikori, Juan Martin del Potro and Ilya Marchenko, and saved a match point in a five-set contest against Briton Dan Evans. The Swiss overcame oppressive heat and humidity, as well as some big hitting and a late surge from Nishikori in the semis. In the quarterfinal, he used his serve and backhand to gradually get the better of 2009 champion and crowd favourite del Potro.
“I knew I could always come back,” said Wawrinka after the win over Nishikori. “My game plan is to be aggressive. I knew I could fight for three, four, five hours. I want to make them suffer and that’s what I did against Del Potro and today as well.”
Djokovic knows Wawrinka is capable of elevating his game on the biggest occasion. The Serb found that out the hard way when Wawrinka used his backhand to devastating effect in that French Open final.
“He’s such a powerful player,” Djokovic said after his semi-final victory over Monfils on Friday. “He has a big serve and probably the best, most effective one-handed backhand in the world now. He can play it all. He has that variety in his game. He can be very dangerous for everybody.”
“I haven’t played Stan in some time now,” added the Serb. “But he’s a big match player. He loves to play on the big stage against big players, because that’s when he elevates his level of performance in his game. He gets much better.”
“When you play Novak, the No. 1 player in the final of Grand Slam, it’s the biggest challenge you can have,” Wawrinka said of the final. “I think it’s going to give me confidence to tell myself that I know I can do it, because I did it at the French Open final. He knows that I can play my best tennis in the final of Grand Slam. But it’s going to be a completely different match.
“I have enough confidence in myself that when I play my best level, I can beat him.”
If Wawrinka can bring the kind of tennis he’s played over the last two rounds, it could be a long affair on Sunday.