Just when it looked like Roger Federer was emerging as the favorite for the 2014 U.S. Open, Novak Djokovic put together an impressive display to remind everybody he's the top-ranked player in the world.
The showing makes him the player to beat in New York.
There were some question marks about Djokovic coming into the event. He triumphed at Wimbledon, but went just 2-2 during the U.S. Open Series with round-of-16, straight-set losses to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Toronto and Tommy Robredo in Cincinnati.
Djokovic admitted following his emphatic win over Diego Schwartzman (6-1, 6-2, 6-4) that tennis hasn't always been his biggest concern since leaving the All England Club. He got married and is soon going to become a father for the first time.
"I didn't have much time to think about tennis with all this happening," he told Larry Fine of Reuters. "It is a new chapter for my wife and I, and we are very excited."
It's an exciting time for the Serbian sensation on a personal level, which makes those struggles in the U.S. Open Series more understandable. What great players are always able to do, however, is rise to the occasion on the biggest stages.
The start of that is what fans witnessed on Monday night.
Schwartzman is far from a pushover in terms of a first-round opponent. He's ranked inside the top 80, and while he's best known for his play on clay, he's starting to add more variety to his game.
Djokovic was never in danger. He won the first set in just 26 minutes and was on cruise control the rest of the way. He hit 24 winners compared to only 10 for the Argentine and converted seven of 12 break-point opportunities.
Not only was it a confidence-building performance after a sluggish buildup, but he got off the court quickly—a goal for every top player in the early rounds of a Grand Slam.
To illustrate how dialed in he was, theScore showcased this shot:
It was the type of tennis Djokovic played on his way to the Wimbledon title—power and precision off both wings to keep his opponent off balance. Finding a way to maintain that form throughout the event and as the level of competition rises is now the key.
With Rafael Nadal out, the draw doesn't feature the usual amount of balance. Djokovic ended up in a tougher half than Federer.
He is on a side with Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Milos Raonic and John Isner, among others.
Federer's seemingly easier path to the final features Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer and Grigor Dimitrov, but not nearly as much depth.
Nevertheless, the trends point in Djokovic's favor. He's the No. 1-ranked player in the world, and deservedly so. When he's playing his best, and he looked within range on Monday night, there isn't anybody who can beat him unless it's a healthy Nadal on clay.
Federer last made the final in New York in 2009. Since that point, Djokovic has reached the championship match four straight times and claimed the 2011 title.
Make no mistake, Federer is a definite threat to capture his first U.S. Open trophy since 2008. He's playing well, the draw fell in his favor, Murray isn't at his best and Nadal isn't around—a set of a factors that push the door wide open for him.
He's not the favorite, though. That's Djokovic by a comfortable margin. His struggles during the U.S. Open Series aren't enough to change that outlook, especially after he responded by winning with such ease to open his journey at the season's final major.
An eighth Grand Slam title is within reach.
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