NEW YORK — Twice, Novak Djokovic batted away questions about his injured shoulder before Friday night’s match. Twice, he responded sharply to spectators. But on the court, ball in play, he was every bit the top-ranked, defending champion on Friday night.
Djokovic swept overmatched American veteran Denis Kudla 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 to reach a fourth-round Sunday showdown with 2016 U.S. Open titlist Stan Wawrinka.
“I managed to play almost pain free,” Djokovic said. “That’s a big improvement from last match. I didn’t know how the body [would] react.”
The Serb’s status going into the Kudla match was far from certain. Djokovic, who won four of the last five Grand Slams, has dealt with left shoulder pain for two weeks. He revealed that much after taking a medical timeout and getting the shoulder worked on repeatedly in his previous match.
Djokovic said Wednesday that he didn’t know if he could finish that second-round win over Argentine Juan Ignacio Londero. He said he would get a further assessment of the injury, consulting with sports medicine experts. He didn’t practice Thursday.
“I’ve been experiencing some days of higher intensity of pain, some days less,” Djokovic said after beating Londero. “What happened [Wednesday] on the court, actually how I felt, was quite rough and unpredictable.”
Concern grew Friday evening when Djokovic’s pre-match practice time was moved from 5 to 6 and then to 7. He finally arrived on site around 7, just before the Arthur Ashe Stadium match preceding his was to start.
Then, in that tardy practice, Djokovic paced to a screen shielding spectators from him and said, “Trust me, I come find you.”
“Just had a little chat,” Djokovic said later, smiling and joking that he would buy the man a drink. “We’ll keep it between us. But he definitely helped me. He doesn’t even know, but he did help me.”
He entered Ashe Stadium soon after and was asked twice about his shoulder in the perfunctory pre-match interview.
“Let’s talk about it after. I’m giving myself a chance. I believe it’s going to be fine,” he said. He was asked again. “I’m here,” Djokovic said. “Let’s play.”
In the first set, Djokovic used an obscenity in telling at least one spectator to shut up after there was audible noise from the crowd during a point.
“Night sessions, New York, crowd gets into it,” he said. “A couple guys that had a couple of drinks more than I guess they were supposed to. But it was all good after.”
The second week figures to bring more major challenges for Djokovic on the other side of the net. Wawrinka, possibly followed by red-hot Russian Daniil Medvedev in the quarterfinals and Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal potentially waiting in the last two rounds should he make a 12th straight U.S. Open semifinal.
Wawrinka won their last head-to-head in the 2016 U.S. Open final and kept Djokovic from a calendar Grand Slam in 2015 by winning their French Open final.
“We had some great battles over the years everywhere, but especially here,” Djokovic said. “Let the better player win.”
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