Set down, Djokovic tops Berrettini at U.S. Open, nears year Slam

Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW YORK — Never fazed, rarely flummoxed, Novak Djokovic is so collected in best-of-five-set matches – even when falling behind, as he has done repeatedly at the U.S. Open.

No opponent, or the prospect of what’s at stake, has been too much to handle. Not yet, anyway. And now he’s two wins away from the first calendar-year Grand Slam in men’s tennis since 1969, along with a men’s-record 21st major championship overall.

Djokovic ceded the opening set for the third consecutive match at Flushing Meadows – and ninth time at a major in 2021 – but again it didn’t matter, because he quickly corrected his strokes and beat No. 6 seed Matteo Berrettini 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 in a quarterfinal that began Wednesday night and concluded after midnight Thursday.

During his on-court interview, Djokovic cut off a question, sensing where it was headed, and said: “Do not ask me anything about history. I know it’s there.”

As he came back and improved to 26-0 in Grand Slam play this season, Djokovic found every angle, thwarted every big Berrettini shot and was so locked in he dove and dropped his racket during one exchange yet scrambled, rose and reinserted himself in the point. He lost it, but the message to his foe was unmistakable, essentially amounting to, “I will do whatever it takes.”

After 17 unforced errors in the first set, Djokovic made a total of 11 the rest of the way.

“The best three sets I’ve played in the tournament, for sure,” he said.

When Berrettini made one last stand, holding a break point while trailing 4-2 in the third set, Djokovic steadied himself. He let Berrettini put a backhand into the net, then conjured up a 121 mph ace and a forehand winner down the line to hold, then pointed his right index finger to his ear – one of many gestures asking the 20,299 in the Arthur Ashe Stadium stands for noise.

Four minutes later, that set was his. And 42 minutes later, the match was.

“He has this ability – and probably that’s why he’s the best ever – just to step up his game, his level, all the time,” said Berrettini, who also lost to Djokovic after taking the first set of the Wimbledon final. “Doesn’t matter how well I play, he just plays better.”

Djokovic already earned trophies on the Australian Open’s hard courts in February, the French Open’s clay courts in June and Wimbledon’s grass courts in July.

Djokovic has added five victories on the U.S. Open’s hard courts and now faces 2020 runner-up Alexander Zverev in Friday’s semifinals. If Djokovic can win that match and Sunday’s final, he will join Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962 and 1969) as the only men to claim all four major tennis singles trophies in one season. (Three women have done it, most recently Steffi Graf in 1988; Serena Williams’ bid in 2015 ended in the U.S. Open semifinals).

One more Slam title also will break the career mark Djokovic currently shares with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Zverev goes into the semifinals on a 16-match winning streak, including a 1-6, 6-3, 6-1 semifinal triumph against Djokovic en route to the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

“I’m pumped,” Djokovic said, looking ahead to what awaits. “The bigger the challenge, the more glory in overcoming it.”

The other men’s semifinal is No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, a two-time major finalist, against No. 12 Felix Auger-Aliassime. They won their quarterfinals Tuesday.

The No. 4-seeded Zverev, a 24-year-old German, advanced Wednesday afternoon by beating Lloyd Harris 7-6 (6), 6-3, 6-4.

Hours later, both Djokovic and Berrettini showed signs of nerves on a muggy evening with the temperature at 75 degrees and the humidity at 80%. Applause, whistles and roars preceded the initial serve, a 124 mph ace by Djokovic, a three-time U.S. Open champion.

Banned from the tournament a year ago because of the coronavirus pandemic, fans are clearly enjoying being a part of all of this again.

They created a fugue of competing chants of Djokovic’s nickname, “No-le! No-le!” and a shortened version of Berrettini’s first name, “Mat-te! Mat-te!” Some greeted Djokovic’s missed serves with claps, considered a no-no in this sport, and some – perhaps the same folks – lamented Berrettini’s faults with a communal “Awwwww.”

Djokovic’s form was not at its finest early, with more mistakes than he could fathom – he rolled his eyes, put a palm to his forehead, muttered toward those in his entourage.

Berrettini uses his 6-foot-5, 209-pound frame to generate punishing power in serves and forehands; Djokovic called him the “Hammer of Tennis.”

But if any player is equipped to dull that style, it’s Djokovic, whose instincts, reflexes, agility and mobility are superior. So he, unlike most other players, can return a 131 mph serve and not merely get it in play but do so with enough intention to lead to a missed backhand by Berrettini, as happened when Djokovic broke to lead 3-1 in the second set.

Still, Berrettini did manage to grab the 77-minute opening set.

“Probably every other player out there, I would have felt like, `OK, now I’m going to go. For sure he’s going to be tired, too, a little bit. I can kind of like (take) over with my game, with my energy and everything,”‘ Berrettini said. “With him, it looks like he doesn’t care.”

Djokovic pretty much confirmed that, saying: “I managed to forget about it, move on.”

He also lost the first set in the third round, against Kei Nishikori, and in the fourth, against Jenson Brooksby, before winning in four both times. Did that against Berrettini at Wimbledon, too.

“When I dropped the first set, I just went to a different level and I stayed there ’til the last point,” Djokovic said about his latest victory. “That’s something that definitely encourages me and gives me a lot of confidence.”

He cleaned up his act by cutting down on errors, with three in the second set and three in the third, during which the retractable roof was shut because of expected rain.

Just holding serve became an ordeal for Berrettini, so much so that he let out a sigh of relief when he finally held after getting broken three times in a span of four games across the middle two sets. By then, though, he had given away the second and had fallen behind 3-0 in the third. The fourth also reached that score, and Djokovic was one step closer to his goals.

“Of course I’m aware of the history, of course it gives me motivation,” Djokovic said at his news conference. “If I start to think about it too much, it burdens me mentally. I want to really go back to the basics and what really works for me mentally.”

Fernando Verdasco accepts 2-month doping ban

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
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LONDON – Former top-10 player Fernando Verdasco accepted a voluntary provisional doping suspension of two months after testing positive for a medication for ADHD, the International Tennis Integrity Agency announced.

Verdasco, who turned 39 this month, said he was taking methylphenidate as medication prescribed by his doctor to treat ADHD but forgot to renew his therapeutic use exemption for the drug. The integrity agency said Verdasco has now been granted an exemption by the World Anti-Doping Agency moving forward.

He tested positive at an ATP Challenger tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in February.

The integrity agency said in a news release that it “accepts that the player did not intend to cheat, that his violation was inadvertent and unintentional, and that he bears no significant fault or negligence for it,” and so what could have been a two-year suspension was reduced to two months.

Verdasco will be eligible to compete on Jan. 8.

The Spaniard is a four-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist, reaching that stage most recently in 2013 at Wimbledon, where he blew a two-set lead in a five-set loss to eventual champion Andy Murray.

Verdasco reached a career-best ranking of No. 7 in April 2009 and currently is No. 125.

Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov give Canada 1st Davis Cup title

Peter van den Berg-USA TODAY Sports
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MALAGA, Spain — Felix Auger-Aliassime fell to his back behind the baseline, then waited for teammates to race off Canada’s bench and pile on top of him.

A few minutes later, the Canadians finally could lift the Davis Cup.

“I think of us all here, we’ve dreamt of this moment,” Auger-Aliassime said.

Canada won the title for the first time, beating Australia behind victories from Denis Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime.

Auger-Aliassime secured the winning point when he downed Alex de Minaur 6-3, 6-4 after Shapovalov opened the day by rolling past Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-2, 6-4.

Seven years after leading Canada to the top of junior tennis, Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov and their teammates finally got to lift the biggest team trophy in their sport.

“We wanted to grow up and be part of the team and try to help the country win the first title,” Shapovalov said, “so everything is just so surreal right now.”

Shapovalov had dropped both his singles matches this week and needed treatment on his back during a three-set loss in the semifinals to Lorenzo Sonego of Italy that lasted 3 hours, 15 minutes. But the left-hander moved quickly around the court, setting up angles to put away winners while racing to a 4-0 lead in the first set.

Auger-Aliassime then finished off his superb second half of the season by completing a perfect week in Spain. He twice had kept the Canadians alive after Shapovalov dropped the opening singles match, and he replaced his weary teammate to join Vasek Pospisil for the decisive doubles point.

This time, Auger-Aliassime made sure the doubles match wouldn’t even be necessary. After his teammates poured onto the court to celebrate with him, they got up and danced around in a circle.

Canada had reached the final only once, falling to host Spain in Madrid in 2019, when Rafael Nadal beat Shapovalov for the clinching point after Auger-Aliassime had lost in the opening match.

But with Auger-Aliassime having since surged up the rankings to his current spot at No. 6, the Canadians are a much more formidable team now. They won the ATP Cup in January and finally added the Davis Cup crown to the junior Davis Cup title Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov led them to in 2015.

Australia was trying for its 29th title and first since current captain Lleyton Hewitt was part of the title-winning team in 2003.

But it was finally time for the Canadians, who were given a wild card into the field when Russia was suspended because of its invasion of Ukraine.

“Look, I think we were very close today,” de Minaur said. “Just wait until the next time we get the same matchup. Hopefully we can get the win and prove that we can do it.”

But Canada will be tough to beat as long as Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov play.

Shapovalov is just 23 and Auger-Aliassime 22, but both already have been Grand Slam semifinalists and Auger-Aliassime ended 2022 as one of the hottest players on the ATP Tour. He won all of his four titles this year, including three straight weeks in October.

He also beat Carlos Alcaraz in the previous Davis Cup stage in September, just after the Spaniard had won the U.S. Open to rise to No. 1 in the rankings. That victory helped send the Canadians into the quarterfinals, which they started this week by edging Germany.

“They’re not kids anymore, that’s for sure. Not after today – well not after the last couple of years,” said Pospisil, the team veteran at 32. “They’ve been crushing it.”