The big question on the men’s side coming into the U.S. Open is if Novak Djokovic is healthy enough to win the title. After his first round match, those questions will remain.
Djokovic played one of the strangest matches of his entire career in opening the night session on Arthur Ashe Stadium against Jerzy Janowicz, a former top prospect now ranked almost outside of the top 250 at just 25 years old.
The ailing left wrist for Djokovic looked vulnerable, especially in the first set. The World No. 1 was running around a few backhands to get to his forehand, and putting more effort into dictating with that shot. Not only was he protecting his backhand wing, he was using slices in situations where he rarely would otherwise. On the bright side for Djokovic fans, he did seem to become more comfortable hitting regular backhands as the match progressed.
It was able to progress deeper than expected due to Janowicz finding some stellar play down break points in the second set. With Djokovic set to put a stranglehold on the proceedings, Janowicz’s all-or-nothing flat groundstrokes came up all sevens as he saved a host of break points, including 0-40. Djokovic then saw the effects of a problem on his other arm hit, and a weak service game led to a split through two sets.
Having already called a timeout for his right arm and the already carrying the problems with his left wrist, a match headed well past the three hour mark looked like danger time for Djokovic, but Janowicz then showed why he hasn’t backed up his success from 2012 and 2013.
With Djokovic flat as a pancake, Janowicz was somehow just as flat despite being an underdog with momentum on one of the best courts in the sport. What resulted was arguably the dullest major crowd in recent tennis history and a match completely devoid of emotion. Janowicz merely saw his level drop off dramatically: the misses remained the hits grew further and further between, and Djokovic lost just three games the rest of the way.
Djokovic fittingly capped off a very weird and disjointed by going back to his past and making an awkward attempt at humor with a tribute to Phil Collins (whose performance kicked off the night session), recalling memories of Victoria Azarenka making the crowd sing “Happy Birthday” for Gael Monfils:
— ESPNTennis (@ESPNTennis) August 30, 2016
The combination of that match taking longer than anyone could have predicted following the opening night festivities from Collins meant a very late night at the office for Madison Keys and Alison Riske.
Keys’ groundstrokes were erratic all night as the match crossed into early Tuesday morning, with Riske playing steady, consistent tennis to elicit more errors from Keys. Down a set and a break, Keys slowly got more rhythm and got herself into the match emotionally, a tough job considering the sparse, flat crowd at that late hour. Two points from elimination in the second set tiebreaker, Keys managed to survive and pulled away by dominating the third set.
Keys finished with 60 winners and 60 unforced errors, which accurately represents her caliber of play. She’ll have to be better going forward, but part of being a top 10 player is learning to grind out and survive extra-late matches. In fact, it was so late that Keys and Riske played the latest finishing women’s match in U.S. Open history, until 1:48 A.M., surpassing Sam Stosur and Elena Dementieva from 2010.
The only thing anyone should take from that match: Survive and advance. The questions about her form can wait for another day.
Other Monday results
-Rafael Nadal was stellar for a set and a half against Denis Istomin, then had to scrap to hang on in the second set. It was a good early test against a relatively toothless opponent who couldn’t maintain his aggressive shotmaking. Nadal broke to win the second and pulled off this vintage down the line winner to seal the break in the third set:
Nadal plays Andreas Seppi on Wednesday, likely in the night session.
-John Isner came from two sets down to survive an upset against fellow American Frances Tiafoe. The teenager broke Isner a startling number of times and had the crowd on his side (which greatly rankled Isner), but the veteran came out ahead on the business end of sets, pulling out third and fifth set tiebreakers, along with playing an uncharacteristically great return game to break in the fifth when Tiafoe served for the win.
-Jack Sock nearly followed up squandering a two set lead with blowing a 4-0 lead in the fifth set, escaping by breaking Taylor Fritz’s serve for 6-4. Tough but encouraging day for the 18 year olds Fritz and Tiafoe. The best thing Fritz could do right now is just take a month off and let his nagging injuries heal after his first full season on the main tour.
-An injured Richard Gasquet lost in straights to young Brit Kyle Edmund.
-Marin Cilic wasn’t flawless but was steady enough to advance in straights. Also through in three: Milos Raonic, Gael Monfils and Jo-Willy Tsonga, with Monfils narrowly avoiding trouble not only against Gilles Muller in a third set tiebreaker but the on-court equipment as well:
-A game away from his first ATP main draw win, 28 year old Saketh Myneni cramped in the fifth set against Jiri Vesely and eventually lost. Vesely will be Djokovic’s next opponent. (Warning: don’t have a drinking game for every time a commentator mentions Vesely beat Djokovic in Monte Carlo. You’ll end up dead.)
-In the first match on the new Grandstand, Caroline Wozniacki outlasted Taylor Townsend by coming from a set down, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. Not always the prettiest match, it was one Wozniacki needed to win, and she found a way for her first Slam victory of 2016. For Townsend, it was a strong to qualify, though the missed opportunity at ranking points has to sting as she tries to gain her footing as a post-hype young player.
-Angie Kerber looked very sharp in an abbreviated opener against Polona Hercog. Kerber won all seven games before Hercog retired.
-In her first match since Rio, gold medalist Monica Puig understandably lost to Zheng Saisai. Not only was Puig out of rhythm, her opponent played incredible and forced her to come up with special shots to end rallies. She hit those shots in Rio, but not on this day.
-It looked like another early exit at a Slam for Petra Kvitova, who instantly fell down 309 against talented teenager Jelena Ostapenko, though Kvitova turned things around to win in straights, as did 2015 finalist Roberta Vinci and 2014 sensation CiCi Bellis, now 17 years old.
-Matches that weren’t so straightforward: Belinda Bencic dropped a tiebreaker to all-or-nothing Samantha Crawford, requiring her to grind out a three setter as she continues to search for her pre-injury level. Naomi Osaka took another big step forward in her young career by taking out poplar dark horse contender Coco Vandeweghe in three sets. And finally, after Garbine Muguruza took a medical timeout for an ab issue after getting blitzed 6-2 by Elise Mertens and steadied the ship from there, pulling through 6-0, 6-3, though the third set was up-for-grabs until the French Open champ seized it into the middle few games.