WHAT HAPPENED: Looking far from his best and occasionally rattled, Novak Djokovic struggled Sunday night to put away an opponent he’d never lost a set to during their previous two meetings.
But the world No. 1 still played well enough to advance to his ninth consecutive US Open quarterfinal, taking care of the No. 23 seed Roberto Bautista Agut in four tough sets, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
Djokovic, who had beaten the Spaniard on hard courts in Dubai in 2013 and 2014, rarely seemed like his usual self on Sunday. He was broken four times, including when serving for the match. He also lost a set for the first time this US Open. But Bautista Agut’s play had a lot to do with Djokovic’s struggles.
The 27-year-old has won two titles, including one last year on grass at 's-Hertogenbosch. He displayed more top-notch tennis during another cool evening in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Bautista Agut whipped his flat forehand at every opportunity, often sliding to his left to slap forehands at both edges of the court. The all-forehand strategy earned him a break point at three-all in the first set, but Djokovic erased it with a 122 mph ace.
Djokovic, to break Bautista Agut later in the set, won one of the more impressive points of the evening. He sliced a drop shot to Bautista Agut's forehand side. Agut sprinted and reached for the ball, tapping it crosscourt. Fully extended, Djokovic lunged for the ball and punched a slice forehand crosscourt, behind Agut, to win the point and earn the break. He punctuated the game by pumping his fist.
Djokovic looked to be cruising in the second set, up a break. But Bautista Agut converted on both of his break points and, with the crowd shouting for him, he smacked a forehand winner to win the set. Djokovic ended that game by stomping on a racquet.
He was clearly rattled to start the third. Djokovic double faulted on his first game point. But he reclaimed momentum by breaking Bautista Agut. Djokovic would need only one break to win the third.
The fourth set was more back-and-forth play from the two, with Djokovic finally breaking Bautista Agut to win the match.
WHAT IT MEANS: At times, Djokovic looked bullied on the court, the victim of an aggressive Spaniard armed with a devastating forehand. But he withstood Bautista Agut’s best game and is moving on to another US Open quarterfinal. Djokovic also remains on track to reach his fourth Grand Slam final of the year, which would be a first for the 28-year-old Serbian.
By advancing into the US Open quarterfinal, Djokovic has now reached the quarterfinal round of the last 17 tournaments he's entered, dating back to last year in Cincinnati.
With his win Sunday, Djokovic also surpassed Pete Sampras on the all-time Grand Slam match victory list. Djokovic, a nine-time Slam winner, now has 204 wins at Grand Slams.
Djokovic will face No. 18 seed Feliciano Lopez in the quarterfinal Tuesday. He is 5-0 against the Spaniard. “When Novak plays good, you don't know what to do to be honest,” Lopez said after his match Sunday. “He has no weaknesses in his game.”
THE QUESTION: Will Djokovic also surpass Sampras by winning more than 14 Grand Slams?