WHAT HAPPENED: World No. 1 Novak Djokovic continued his impressive season and advanced to his ninth consecutive US Open semifinal Tuesday evening with a 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 7-6 win over Feliciano Lopez.
Djokovic played beautiful, largely error-free tennis from the back of the court, but he was made to work for his two-hour-and-39-minute win after the tricky Spaniard hit a rich vein of form in the middle of the match to run away with the second set.
Djokovic’s game has always been best-suited for the hard courts – six of his nine Grand Slam singles titles have come in Melbourne or New York City – so it came as somewhat of a surprise that the free-swinging Spanish lefty pushed the 2011 US Open champion as hard as he did.
The 28-year-old Serb made the 25-minute first set look easy, making just one unforced error and acting as a brick wall to absorb the power game of the make-or-miss Lopez. Djokovic didn’t make even one-third of his first serves, but he won 80 percent of his points on his second serve against an undisciplined opponent who assumed his grip-it-and-rip-it approach was his best tactic.
Lopez refused to compromise his game plan, but he found much more success in the second set behind a booming serve and a willingness to come into the net more often. He frustrated Djokovic with his knifed backhand slices and looping topspin forehands, and while he missed a lot of balls, he also hit more than twice as many winners en route to leveling the match behind his 10th ace.
Unlike most players who grew up on the clay, the 33-year-old Lopez prefers to keep points short from the baseline or by approaching the net quickly behind his serve and hoping that his transition volley would be enough to afford him an easy put-away.
Lopez saved three break points from 0-40 in his first service game of the third set, but he couldn’t navigate his way out of trouble on the fourth, double-faulting to hand the Serbian a 2-0 advantage. Djokovic reestablished his dominance from the baseline, and even though Lopez held his own from the back of the court, it was Djokovic who improved his consistency and cut down on his miscues. Lopez had a chance to break back at 4-2, 15-40, but Djokovic won the next four points and soon wrapped up the set.
Lopez, a three-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist, kept the points short in the fourth set and never faced a break point in getting to 6-6. He stuck a number of tough volleys and didn’t lose a point on his first serve until the tiebreak. All of Lopez’s hard work came undone inside a few minutes, as Djokovic dug in and made a number of tough returns to take the breaker, 7-2.
Both players finished with 36 winners, but Djokovic’s 17 unforced errors to Lopez’s 48 was the telling statistic.
WHAT IT MEANS: Djokovic moves into his 21st semifinal in 22 majors and now faces defending champion Marin Cilic in the final four.
Djokovic is 13-0 lifetime against Cilic, including wins at Wimbledon in 2014 and 2015 and at Roland Garros in 2014. Their 2014 quarterfinal encounter on the grass of London was one of the highlights of the tournament, with Cilic twice rallying from a set down before eventually bowing out in five.
The talk of the Open is all about Serena and her bid for history, but Djokovic has been no slouch this season. Had he won one more match in Paris, he would also be going for a calendar-year Grand Slam after successes at the Australian Open and Wimbledon.
THE QUESTION: It’s difficult, almost implausible, to say the top-ranked male tennis player is flying under the radar, but the truth is that Novak Djokovic's run at a second title in the Big Apple – and a third Slam title this year – is a subplot to the Flushing Meadows narrative. But if Serena loses either of her two remaining matches and Djokovic wins his, which player has had the better year?