NEW YORK — Now it gets serious. Now the men’s game, existing almost in a vacuum while the ladies battered each other and the seedings—joyful confusion, you could call it—grabs its rightful place at the U.S. Open.
Now the big names display what they hope are their big games.
Rafael Nadal isn’t here, true—another of his multiple injuries, a wrist this time. But Roger Federer is. Novak Djokovic is. Andy Murray is. And in the quarterfinals we get Djokovic, a former Open champ, No. 1 in the rankings, against Murray, also a former Open champ.
Such different personalities: Djokovic is upbeat; Murray is dour. Such similar qualities, both able to make the shot when the shot needs to be made. Able to ignore the incidentals—“Yeah, it was humid,” said Murray about the typical New York late summer weather. Able to concentrate on the essentials.
Murray, after an operation on his back last winter and a layoff, has slipped from No. 4 in the rankings to No. 9. That has an effect in the seedings, which is why he’s facing Djokovic in the quarters, the fifth round. But it has no effect on Murray’s thinking.
“I think that’s really why we play matches,” Murray said when asked if he gets fired up about facing a star such as Djokovic. “That’s what you put in the work for, so that when you come to these events and do have to play the best players, you’re ready.
“Playing against the No. 1 player in the world is exciting.”
Murray’s tumble in the standings has no effect on Djokovic’s thinking. On Labor Day, with the thermometer near 90 degrees, Murray methodically won his fourth-round match, 7-5, 7-5, 6-4, over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who beat Djokovic three weeks ago in Toronto.
“Andy, we all know his quality,” said Djokovic, who advanced to the quarters with a 6-1, 7-5, 6-4 win over Philipp Kohlschreiber. “He already has been Grand Slam champion, Wimbledon, U.S. Open, Olympic Games." (Murray beat Djokovic in the final of each, by the way.)
“He has a lot of success. He knows how to play center court U.S. Open, where he’s played some great tennis, and we had some great matches.”
Which is exactly what this 2014 Open needs on the men’s side, a great match. It’s had humidity. It’s had rain. It’s had Americans tumbling by the wayside as usual (Thanks for stopping by, Mr. Querrey; appreciate the visit, Mr. Isner). It hasn’t had anything memorable from Djokovic, Federer or Murray. So far.
“I don’t think it would be nice to say it’s the start of the U.S. Open now,” Djokovic said in response to a sarcastic but legitimate question. “Totally disrespect all of my opponents I played against in the opening rounds. But it’s normal to expect that I’m going to have tougher opponents as the tournament goes on.”
Djokovic and Murray are both 27, born seven days apart in 1987. They have played 20 times, beginning in 2006. The Joker, as he is nicknamed, has won 12 of those 20, but the margin shrinks to one—three to two—in Grand Slams. And two of the last three times they’ve met in a Slam (the Wimbledon final of 2013, the Australian Open final of 2013 and the U.S. Open final of 2012) Murray the Scotsman beat Djokovic the Serb.
“I don’t know how well he’ll play,” Tsonga said when queried about Murray’s chances, “but for sure he was better than me.”
The match will be important but not seminal, not something that will mark either as a success. Or a failure. This isn’t comparable to when Vitas Gerulaitis ended his 0-16 streak against Jimmy Connors and proclaimed, “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 in row.”
What’s important is the winner advances to the semifinals.
“I feel good about my game,” said Djokovic, who edged Federer in the Wimbledon final some two months ago.
This is the 22nd consecutive time Djokovic has made the quarters in a Slam. “It says,” he pointed out, “I do value these tournaments the most. It motivates me for the future to continue that streak.”
In this situation, after so many meetings, familiarity breeds not contempt but contemplation. Both understand how to go about the task.
“I would say we play a fairly similar style, and that’s why a lot of the matches have been long games, long rallies, because we do a lot of things well," agreed Murray. "I mean obviously there’s tactics that you go into the match with, and then there’s things that you make adjustments when the match starts.”
Said Djokovic: “Andy performs his best in the Slams. Even though he had back surgery last year that kept him off the tour the last few months of the (2013) season, he’s been on and off this year. But in the big matches, as the tournament progresses, he’s still fit. He still plays very high-quality tennis.
“That’s what I expect him to do.”
That’s what all of us expect both Djokovic and Murray to do. Finally, at the Open, the men’s game gets a match it deserves. And we deserve.