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Novak Djokovic wins U.S. Open, back atop tennis, after revealing hikes

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NEW YORK — Novak Djokovic completed his comeback summer, winning the U.S. Open for his 14th Grand Slam singles title on Sunday.

Djokovic mitigated the power of Juan Martin del Potro 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-3 in a final that was tighter than the straight-set score — Djokovic led, 49 points to 48, after the 95-minute middle frame.

Djokovic dedicated it, “to the support of the loved ones, my kids, my wife, my small team of people that has been there with me through difficult times.”

The 31-year-old Serb tied Pete Sampras for third on the men’s career Slams list, trailing Roger Federer (20) and Rafael Nadal (17).

“The first actually thing I saw related to tennis on the TV was [Sampras’] first or second Wimbledon championship,” Djokovic said. “That inspired me to start playing tennis.”

Djokovic earned his second straight major title after winning Wimbledon two months ago. The Wimbledon crown was bigger. It marked his first Slam in 26 months, since he he held all four titles at once after the 2016 French Open.

Djokovic spent the better part of two years in a funk. He cited “private issues” in summer 2016, split from coach Boris Becker that fall, was coached by Andre Agassi for less than a year, missed the 2017 U.S. Open for an elbow injury, then underwent surgery to fix it in January.

It took a few months, but Djokovic rejoined the Big Three with Federer and Nadal with his Wimbledon crown in July. After the U.S. Open, no doubt he is back atop the sport, no matter he is third in the new ATP rankings behind the other titans.

At the start of 2017, as Djokovic faded, Federer and Nadal had their returns to the top by combining to win six straight Slams.

After Djokovic lost to 72nd-ranked Italian Marco Cecchinato in the French Open quarterfinals in June, he hiked in the French mountains with his wife for five days. He remembered one peak in particular that took three hours to scale.

“We sat down and we just looked at the world from that perspective, just kind of breathed in the new inspiration, new motivation,” Djokovic said. “I thought of tennis, thought of the emotion that tennis provokes in me in a way. It was all positives. I just felt like I had a new breath for this sport. The rest is history.”

Djokovic came back to win both summer Slams, going 22-1 in four tournaments from Wimbledon through the U.S. Open. He beat Nadal for the first time in two years at Wimbledon. He played Federer for the first time in two years, and swept him in Cincinnati last month.

Now, they make up the top three in the ATP rankings for the first time since May 2015.

“Maybe 10 years ago I would say I’m not so happy to be part of this era with Nadal and Federer,” said Djokovic, who at this time a decade ago was 2-7 against Federer and 4-10 against Nadal. Now, he leads both head-to-heads. “Actually today I am. I really am. I feel like these guys, rivalries with these guys, matches with Federer and Nadal, have made me the player I am.”

Del Potro made sure these last two weeks, if not this entire season, that he is part of the discussion moving forward. Playing all four Slams for the first time since 2012, he made the third round in Australia, the semifinals at the French and the quarters at Wimbledon. He faced Nadal in three of the four majors.

Del Potro reached a career-high ranking of No. 3, four wrist surgeries and eight years after becoming No. 4.

At 29, two years younger than Djokovic, he can see the Serb, plus Federer and Nadal, and know that playing title-worthy tennis in your 30s, after physical setbacks, is realistic.

Del Potro contemplated retiring in 2015, during a two-year stretch where he played just two tournaments and his ranking fell to No. 1,045.

At one point, the gentle giant missed 14 out of 28 Grand Slams in a seven-year stretch. What could have been if not for the wrist problems. If not for the presence of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, who combined to win 47 of the last 55 majors.

“I don’t feel sad that I couldn’t win Grand Slams because of them,” del Potro said. “I am just one of the guys that have lucky to be in the same era as them.”

Djokovic stopped his trophy-presentation interview to congratulate his friend.

“For what he has done in the last four or five years,” Djokovic said. “Still having faith, having belief in himself that one day he’s going to be a top player, and he’s going to be fighting for Grand Slams. … I know that he’s going to be here again with the champion’s trophy.”

Del Potro has said the fans, those boisterous supporters in the Albiceleste jerseys, were his motivation to endure. They made their presence known inside a closed-roof Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday, forcing chair umpire Alison Hughes‘ refrain: Ladies and gentlemen, please.

A quote from del Potro after his breakthrough 2009 win here is again apropos today.

“I have new opportunities in the other Grand Slams to win, because if I did here, if I beat Nadal, Federer and many good players, maybe I can do one more time,” he said then. “But of course, will be difficult.”

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Rafael Nadal quits injured; Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro in U.S. Open final

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NEW YORK — Rafael Nadal retired from his U.S. Open semifinal with right knee pain that has dogged him on and off for years, sending Juan Martin del Potro into Sunday’s final against Novak Djokovic.

Nadal, a 17-time Grand Slam champion, mentioned retirement to the chair umpire midway through the second set, then threw in the towel after dropping the set. Del Potro had a 7-6 (3), 6-2 lead.

Later, the 13-time major winner Djokovic swept Japan’s Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 to reach his seventh U.S. Open final in his last eight appearances.

Nadal said that he first felt a knee problem in his second- or third-round match last week and that it acted up again Friday starting in the fifth game.

“I said to my box immediately that I felt something on the knee,” Nadal said. “After that, I was just trying to see if in some moment the thing can improve during the match. But no, was not the day.

Nadal’s right leg was taped just below the knee in the first set and again in the second, after he had ripped off the tape. The Spaniard winced and limped in the second set.

“Yeah, I waited as much as I can,” said Nadal, who played 15 hours, 54 minutes on court in his first five matches, his most ever en route to a Slam semifinal. “You could imagine very difficult for me to say goodbye before the match finish. But at some point you have to take a decision. It was so difficult for me to keep playing at the same time that way, having too much pain.

“That was not a tennis match at the end, no? It was just one player playing, the other one staying on the other side of the court.

“I hate to retire, but stay one more set out there playing like this will be too much for me.”

After del Potro won the set, Nadal took off his headband, sat down and pulled off his wristbands while a trainer spoke to him. He rose after a quick chat, shook the chair umpire’s hand and then told del Potro.

“When I saw him with bad movements [in the second set], I start to play aggressive, putting him running a lot. Then he decide to stop,” del Potro said. “I love to play with Rafa because he’s the biggest fighter in this sport. I don’t like to see him suffering on court like today, so I’m sad for him.”

The 32-year-old Nadal quit during a match for the second time in four Grand Slams this year. He pulled out during an Australian Open quarterfinal with an upper right leg injury against Marin Cilic in January.

Nadal has been forced out of tournaments due to left and right knee problems over the last decade, withdrawing before 2009 Wimbledon and the 2012 Olympics and during the 2010 Australian Open. Tendonitis has dogged him.

“I cannot compare the knee with other times because the pain on the knee is always very similar,” he said. “The problem is this time was something little bit more aggressive because was in one movement. Was not something progressive. So I don’t know what can happen in a couple of days or in a couple of weeks.

“Is not an injury that tells you six months off, you are back. Is maybe an injury that in one week you feel better, is an injury that maybe in six months you don’t feel better. I know what is going on with the knee.”

Still, he retains the No. 1 ranking no matter if del Potro or Djokovic lifts the U.S. Open trophy Sunday. In 2017, Nadal won his first Slams in three years (the French and U.S. Opens), then won his 11th French Open this year.

He is 45-4 this season, with half the losses being injury retirements.

“I know the things are going the right way,” Nadal said. “I am playing well. I am enjoying on court. I am having a lot of success. I am very competitive at the age of 32. Lot of people in this room, including myself, never will think that at the age of 32 I will be here fighting for titles, fighting for the first positions of the rankings.

“All my career everybody say that because of my style, I will have a short career. I still here.”

Del Potro, a 29-year-old Argentine who is no stranger to injury, made his second career Grand Slam final and his first since his epic run to the 2009 U.S. Open title.

Del Potro, who beat Nadal and Roger Federer at the 2009 U.S. Open, missed three of the last eight U.S. Opens due to left and right wrist surgeries. He contemplated retiring in 2015, during a two-year stretch where he played just two tournaments.

“I didn’t expect to get into another Grand Slam final,” del Potro said. “I had my biggest memories on the tennis court playing on this court … but I was a kid. Now I’m much older. I will try to enjoy one more day.”

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Novak Djokovic wins after strange sweat scene; U.S. Open semis set

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NEW YORK — Novak Djokovic, in his previous 10 straight runs to U.S. Open semifinals, had never heard an opponent utter what John Millman said midway through their quarterfinal Wednesday night.

“I don’t know what to do now, I can’t stop sweating,” Millman told Djokovic at the net between games, the Serbian leading 6-3, 2-2 on another muggy night at Arthur Ashe Stadium. “I don’t want to change now, but … ”

Djokovic interrupted the plea.

“I get you, and I’m soaked, too, go ahead,” he said. “I’m fine to have a little rest.”

And so Millman left the court in the middle of his first Grand Slam quarterfinal — at the advanced age of 29 — to put on new clothes and shoes. The request was even more unusual because Millman didn’t wait until after the set, or even after one more game to do it during a changeover.

So strange that the U.S. Tennis Association deemed necessary to explain the allowance in a press release before Djokovic finished the 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 win just before midnight.

“The chair determined that the surface was dangerous enough to invoke the ‘Equipment Out of Adjustment’ provision in the ITF Duties and Procedures for Officials and allowed Millman to go off court to change clothes/shoes,” the release stated. “Both players agreed that he should do so. Because the chair umpire deemed the situation within the ‘Equipment Out of Adjustment’ provision, Millman was not charged with an official change of attire or bathroom break.”

Djokovic sat as Millman changed, shirt off, arms bent behind his head, towel wrapping his waist, grinning as if enjoying Coney Island beach.

“You don’t stop sweating, though,” the Australian said of the six-minute break. “You go to this little holding room just off the court, and there’s a tiny, probably, like, three-by-three room, even less, and you’re just dripping. The sweating doesn’t stop.”

U.S. Open Semifinals
(17) Serena Williams vs. (19) Anastasija Sevastova: Thursday, 7 p.m. ET
(14) Madison Keys vs. (20) Naomi Osaka: Thursday, after Williams-Sevastova

(1) Rafael Nadal vs. (3) Juan Martin del Potro: Friday
(6) Novak Djokovic vs. (21) Kei Nishikori: Friday

Temperatures were mild compared to earlier in the tournament — 70s — but the humidity was as punishing as the two veterans’ groundstrokes.

The USTA has made near daily announcements of extreme-heat provisions the last 10 days, including allowing players to leave the court after three sets for 10-minute breaks (after two sets for women’s matches).

“I’m not normally like the biggest sweater. But I don’t know. I was really sweating,” Millman said. “I’d play in a swimming pool if I got to play a quarterfinal, you know, every week at a Grand Slam.”

Djokovic, known for being perhaps the fittest player on tour, said he’s bringing at least 10 shirts for every match here. The conditions are so brutal, he noted, that he saw unflappable Roger Federer sweat like never before in his fourth-round loss to Millman in the same night-time setting at Ashe.

“I personally have never sweat as much as I have here,” Djokovic said after advancing to play Japan’s Kei Nishikori in his 11th straight U.S. Open semifinal. “It feels like sauna.

“I asked the chair umpire whether they are using some form of ventilation or air conditioning down at the court-level side, and then he says that he’s not aware of it, that, you know, only what comes through the hallway type of thing. I think that this tournament needs to address this. I mean, because whether it’s night or day, we just don’t have air down there.”

Djokovic, has made the U.S. Open semis every year since 2007 (with two titles among his 13 total Grand Slam trophies), excluding last year when he missed the event with an elbow injury.

Earlier Wednesday, Nishikori ousted No. 7 Marin Cilic 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4 in a rematch of the 2014 U.S. Open final won by Cilic. That marked Nishikori’s deepest Grand Slam run.

Djokovic is enjoying a resurgent summer, taking his fourth Wimbledon title to end a two-year Grand Slam title drought.

He then won the Cincinnati Masters leading into the U.S. Open, entering as a co-favorite with top-ranked Rafael Nadal despite being ranked sixth. Nadal gets No. 3 Juan Martin del Potro in the other semifinal.

Also Wednesday, Japan’s Naomi Osaka and American Madison Keys each won in straight sets to set up the second women’s semifinal.

The Osaka-Keys winner gets either Serena Williams, eyeing her record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title, or Latvian Anastasija Sevastova (a first-time Grand Slam semifinalist) in Saturday’s final.

Osaka is the only woman left in the draw who has beaten Williams.

Wednesday was historic for Japan, which put a man and woman into the semifinals of the same Grand Slam for the first time.

Nishikori and Osaka are among the 2020 Olympic host nation’s most popular active athletes, a list topped by Shohei Ohtani followed by more baseball players.

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