NEW YORK — It was warm. It was late. But heat and time couldn’t stop Novak Djokovic. Neither could Andy Murray. On a night that rolled into the wee small hours of morning, Djokovic verified his standing as the No. 1 men’s player in tennis.
He wasn’t perfect and had his lapses, but as John McEnroe—who was once in the position Djokovic now stands—pointed out on the ESPN telecast after midnight, all players have their lapses. The question is how many and for how long.
Djokovic’s were irritating; he several times swung his racket in anger after a missed shot he felt was a wasted opportunity. But they weren’t fatal. And at 1:16 a.m. local time Thursday, he finished off a 7-6 (1), 6-7 (1), 6-2, 6-4, win over Murray in a U.S. Open quarterfinal.
Into the Open semis for an eighth consecutive time, tying him with Ivan Lendl (Murray's former coach) and the man he’ll most likely face in Monday’s final, Roger Federer.
What a year for Djokovic. Finals at the French Open, victory at Wimbledon, over Federer. Now the semis of the U.S., where he’ll face Kei Nishikori, who after consecutive five-set, four-hour-plus matches may be weary. Not that Djokovic isn’t after his three-hour, 32-minute duel with Murray.
When Djokovic was asked what he thought about Nishikori, he answered, "My thoughts were directed to sleeping right now...or partying." That drew a roar from the remainder of a crowd that reached 23,000 at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Djokovic and Murray, who was seeded No. 8 but is not worse than the fourth-best player in the world, now have met 21 times, with Djokovic having won 13. "I knew it was going to be tough," Djokovic said, "and the more aggressive one was going to win it."
There isn’t too much Djokovic has lost in 2014, especially in the Grand Slam tournaments.
He could only—only, ha!—make the quarters of the Australian, beaten by eventual winner Stan Wawrinka (who Wednesday was Nishikori’s quarters victim), but after that, wow. He made it to the last day at Roland Garros, losing to the guy who always wins there, Rafael Nadal; then a second Wimbledon triumph; now two wins away from a second U.S. crown and an eighth Slam overall.
Even with Federer’s persistence and Nadal’s mercurial brilliance—limited by those too-frequent injuries, such as the wrist problem that kept him out of this Open—Djokovic has been the most consistent and successful the last three or four years.
He’s got a serve that’s efficient, if not blinding. He’s got incredible agility and tremendous speed. He runs down shots that seem irretrievable, shots that have the fans gasping—and then roaring.
If there is a weakness in his game, it may be a failure to put away an opponent. He had Murray beaten in the second set—or was Murray beating himself? After losing that set, Djokovic returned to display the skills he possesses.
Presuming he and Federer (whose quarterfinal is against the erratic Frenchman Gael Monfils) make it to the finals, it will be fascinating to watch their Wimbledon follow-up, this one on hard court instead of grass.
Flushing Meadows used to belong to Federer, who won there from 2004-2008.
If Djokovic, six years younger than the 33-year-old Federer, plays as he should, maybe he’ll take up the figurative ownership.
Djokovic has won Wimbledon twice, but the hard courts are clearly his best surface. He’s won the Australian four times, and he’s headed for a second win in America’s national championship. A year ago he lost in the final to Nadal.
"When you play him," said Murray, who beat Djokovic in the 2012 Open final, "physically it’s extremely demanding. When you play him you have to be on it physically and mentally for a long period of time. I thought he was physically better than me in the end."
After a lackluster few rounds, Djokovic-Murray was touted as the match to get us excited. And it did. It was classic New York, starting after the Serena Williams-Flavia Pennetta match at 9:43 p.m ET. It was a given play would go on long after the witching hour.
"I want to thank the fans who stayed," Djokovic said on the loudspeaker system after the final point. "At times the tennis was not that nice. There were a lot of unforced errors. That was because of the battle. We always have long games against each other."
A week apart in age, Djokovic, a Serb, and Murray, a Scotsman, stood at the baseline and slugged away, occasionally rushing the net. They broke serve numerous times, but finally Djokovic came through in the showdown between Grand Slam champions.
The best man finally won.
Art Spander, an award-winning columnist, has covered more than 50 Grand Slams in his career. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.