US Open 2016 Men's Final: Djokovic vs. Wawrinka Preview, Predictions

Joe Kennard@@JoeKennardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 10, 2016

US Open 2016 Men's Final: Djokovic vs. Wawrinka Preview, Predictions

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    Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka will collide for the second time in a Grand Slam final.
    Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka will collide for the second time in a Grand Slam final.MIGUEL MEDINA/Getty Images

    The 2016 U.S. Open began without five-time champion Roger Federer and saw numerous top seeds like Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and Milos Raonic sent home earlier than expected.

    With each passing round, the twists and turns piled up higher and higher. Reigning champion Novak Djokovic has experienced most of that drama.

    Entering New York with injury concerns severe enough that his team debated whether or not he should play, Djokovic labored into the semifinals despite only completing two matches. His health a lingering question mark throughout the tournament, the top seed caught a massive break by stumbling into all that extra rest.

    He'll need every ounce of it now that he's through to the championship match after a semifinal that turned into a spectacle.

    Playing in high heat and humidity, Djokovic and Gael Monfils gave fans a piece of performance art that won't soon be forgotten.

    Djokovic prevailed 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 but only after some zany, unconventional gamesmanship from Monfils, who calmly ordered a can of Coca-Cola mid-match and looked to be tanking at certain moments.

    An angry Djokovic could be seen arguing with the chair umpire and even ripped his shirt apart late in the third set as the conditions and Monfils started to wear on him mentally.

    You couldn't script this stuff.

    On the other end of the spectrum was the tame (in comparison) semifinal between Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori. Fresh off his win over Murray, Nishikori surged to an early lead and looked to be in control of the match.

    But the notoriously streaky Wawrinka picked the right time to go on one of his runs. Playing more aggressively, he grabbed a 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2 win over Nishikori to book a date in the final, a somewhat unexpected result considering his up-and-down form entering the U.S. Open.

    His reward is a date with the sport's most dominant player on his surface of choice.

    The unbridled power of Wawrinka, the sublime defending of Djokovic: Together they'll intertwine once more for an exciting stylistic clash of champions.

    Before they take the court, here's a breakdown of how they reached this moment, their rivalry and how this match will be decided.

    Will Djokovic claim a 13th major title or can Wawrinka walk away with his third?

Wawrinka at US Open 2016

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    Wawrinka clawed back and adjusted his game to outlast Nishikori in the semifinals.
    Wawrinka clawed back and adjusted his game to outlast Nishikori in the semifinals.JEWEL SAMAD/Getty Images

    Lacking consistent results heading into the U.S. Open, Wawrinka's campaign sputtered to an inauspicious start.

    He'd get past Fernando Verdasco in his opening match and a game Alessandro Giannessi in his next one, but Wawrinka nearly went home when Daniel Evans took him to the brink in the third round. 

    Saving match point in the fourth-set tiebreak, Wawrinka ultimately closed it out in five. That win seems to have given him new life.

    After defeating Illya Marchenko, Wawrinka ran into crowd favorite and comeback warrior Juan Martin del Potro. Stretched to four sets, he managed to withstand the Argentine's sizzling power to set up a blockbuster semifinal with Nishikori.

    Early in their contest, Nishikori gained the upper hand with his attacking tennis and flummoxed a passive Wawrinka. Dropping the first set, Stan the Man stared down a 0-40 hole at 3-3 in the second. That was his wake-up call as he managed to fend off countless break points and keep Nishikori at bay.

    "I was struggling," the New York Times' David Waldstein quoted Wawrinka as saying. "I was suffering on the court first set, second set and all the match. But I just knew that it was important not to show it."

    As the match progressed, Wawrinka raised his level and adjusted his tactics to turn the match in his favor. Fighting a hungry Nishikori in sweltering conditions (and later under a closed roof), Wawrinka proved the stronger player.

Djokovic at US Open 2016

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    Djokovic's U.S. Open journey is something he couldn't possibly have predicted.
    Djokovic's U.S. Open journey is something he couldn't possibly have predicted.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    What a bizarre and mystifying two-week ride for Djokovic.

    He began the tournament with concerns about his left wrist after losing in the first round of the Olympics and missing the Western & Southern Open. When he called for the trainer during his opening match against Jerzy Janowicz, things looked grim for the defending champion.

    He'd grit out a four-set victory in that one despite a shaky overall performance. Little did he know that would be his toughest match through the semifinals.

    Given a walkover by an injured Jiri Vesely, Djokovic watched as Mikhail Youzhny retired during the middle of their third-round match and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga threw in the towel during their quarterfinal meeting because of knee problems.

    Before the semifinals, Djokovic had only completed two matches: that win over Janowicz and another in the fourth round against Kyle Edmund.

    Untested and still not fully fit, his match with an in-form Monfils (who hadn't lost a set in his previous five matches) presented potential danger. Or so we thought.

    With Djokovic racing out to a quick 5-0 lead as Monfils kept hitting double-faults and errant shots, the Frenchman suddenly went to the rope-a-dope maneuver. And it worked. Thrown off his game by Monfils' unorthodox and nonchalant approach, the world No. 1 had to regroup before letting the set slip away.

    The wackiness only magnified with each passing moment, but the quality of the match turned for the better in the third set.

    Shaking off an early break, Monfils climbed back to steal the set. In frustration, Djokovic tore his own shirt, a stark contrast to the even-keeled Monfils.

    Djokovic finally put an end to the circus in the fourth set as a look of relief washed over his face before a stunned Arthur Ashe Stadium.

    It wasn't pretty, but it was certainly entertaining. At the end of it, Djokovic found himself with a trip to another Grand Slam final.

Who Has the Historical Edge?

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    Djokovic and Wawrinka share a laugh while practicing at the 2016 Australian Open.
    Djokovic and Wawrinka share a laugh while practicing at the 2016 Australian Open.Michael Dodge/Getty Images

    An often high-quality series, the Djokovic vs. Wawrinka rivalry is one dominated by the former.

    Djokovic holds a 19-4 series lead, with a 2-0 record against Wawrinka in New York. The second of those previous U.S. Open meetings came in 2013 when Djokovic fought back from a two-sets-to-one deficit, winning in five sets and dazzling the crowd with marvelous tennis.

    Though staring at a low win percentage in this matchup, Wawrinka notably conquered Djokovic in the 2014 Australian Open semifinals (on the way to his first Grand Slam title) and in the 2015 French Open final. Those seismic victories show that the moment won't be too big for him even while facing the sport's top player on the biggest stage.

    Of their 23 meetings, nine went the distance, including their most recent one in Paris last fall, which Djokovic claimed.

    Fans can only hope for the same this time around.

Biggest X-Factors?

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    Can Djokovic push his body one more time without breaking down?
    Can Djokovic push his body one more time without breaking down?Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

    Harping on Djokovic's health sounds like a broken record at this point. Yet there's no denying he's less than 100 percent right, with his injury situation unable to magically resolve itself.

    Aside from that circus (if there's even a way to accurately describe it) in the heat against Monfils, he hasn't been pushed by a top-ranked opponent during this tournament. How will his body—and game—respond with a physical match looming?

    He's already received treatment numerous times going into the final, looking more fragile by the day. But there's no time for rest until Monday. Somehow, Djokovic will have to grind his teeth and suffer through one more match. The longer this one goes could put him at a disadvantage if those ailments crop up again.

    From Wawrinka's standpoint, it's important to note that he's 10-0 in his last 10 finals appearances, including the 2014 Australian Open and 2015 French Open. When he gets to this stage, the Stanimal's been absolutely money. 

    "For sure, the biggest is the confidence I got in my game in the important points," Wawrinka told Tennis' Kamakshi Tandon. "I know when I'm really confident with myself, I play better [and] put more pressure, and that's the way I need to beat the top players."

    That mentality and track record in important situations should inspire him to give Djokovic all he can handle.

Wawrinka Will Win If...

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    An emotional Wawrinka will have to keep his intensity high against Djokovic.
    An emotional Wawrinka will have to keep his intensity high against Djokovic.JEWEL SAMAD/Getty Images

    Wawrinka is at his best when the boom-or-bust style he favors actually clicks and he can hit foes off the court.

    That's a risky tactic when facing possibly the sport's greatest defender, but it's his best shot at a victory over Djokovic.

    Like he did in Paris last spring, Wawrinka is going to have to refine his game. Go for the lines, hit big serves, take chances. All of that is necessary to stop Djokovic from settling in and dictating the match.

    To give himself the best opportunity to carry out that plan, he can't lose the battle of court position. 

    The turning point in his win over Nishikori came when he decided to step in on returns and not stand too far back. That allowed him to make a breakthrough and secure several breaks, turning momentum completely around.

    With an even higher caliber player in his way, Wawrinka needs to ratchet up that aggression to the max.

    "The secret is simple: I have to play my best tennis, my best game," he said to the Guardian's Bryan Armen Graham. "He’s the No. 1 player, amazing fighter, amazing player, but I have enough confidence in myself that when I play my best level I can beat him. Hopefully I can bring that Sunday."

Djokovic Will Win If...

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    A tired Djokovic celebrates after defeating Monfils in the semifinals.
    A tired Djokovic celebrates after defeating Monfils in the semifinals.Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

    There are so many parts of Djokovic's game to admire. What's overlooked and is a key to his success is the way in which he can redirect the ball and move players from side to side.

    He'll have to employ that tactic to keep Wawrinka from settling into a comfort zone.

    Surely, Djokovic will go after the Wawrinka's one-handed backhand and try to draw errors from that side.

    Watch for him to also try to stretch his challenger out on the forehand and keep him wide. 

    In last year's French Open final, we saw what happens when Wawrinka gets extra time against Djokovic. With this lower-bouncing surface, however, it will be trickier for him to get that fraction of a second longer to load up and hit through the court.

    Djokovic should further take advantage of that by throwing out different looks and approaching when possible. Make his opponent guess and reap the rewards.

Prediction

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    Djokovic will try to cap his wild fortnight with jubilation.
    Djokovic will try to cap his wild fortnight with jubilation.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    Given their past history, another closely contested match between these two should be in the works.

    Djokovic's assortment of physical problems obfuscate the picture to a degree. At full health, it's tough to see him losing to Wawrinka on these faster courts, which suit his game better. But the reality is that he's limited right now. 

    Because of his unique journey to the final, energy shouldn't be an issue for Djokovic. The greater concern is how his tender shoulders and left wrist will hold up if this one goes the distance.

    If Wawrinka notices Djokovic is limited, he can try to wear him down with uppercuts from the baseline. When Stan the Man gets into a rhythm like he did against Djokovic in that French Open final last year, he's nearly impossible to beat.

    Djokovic won't let that happen. Even if it seems like he's being held together by duct tape at his point, the defending champion will find a way to keep his crown and win a 13th Grand Slam title.

    "I want to be able to put myself in position to fight for the trophy, and everything that has happened in the tournament so far is behind me now," Djokovic told USA Today's Nick McCarvel. 

    Wawrinka won't go away easily and this should be a worthy final, but Djokovic will ascend in four sets.

        

    All statistics are courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise noted.

    Joe Kennard is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

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