Tennis' own third man back in semis again

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Novak Djokovic

Third-seeded Novak Djokovic has flown under the radar at this year's U.S. Open, but finds himself in the semis for the fourth straight year. (AP)

If the ocean of RF caps and ill-fitting calf-length shorts on the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center grounds are any indication, then for 99.9 percent of the world the face of men’s tennis is either Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. But for one fan the face belongs to someone altogether different, someone whose Warholic mien emblazons the T-shirt that he has insisted on wearing to all of the player’s matches for the past one-and-a-half weeks.

What goes through Novak Djokovic’s mind when he looks up to his box and sees his own velvet-Elvis inspired reflection glowering back at him from the chest of his proud father, Srdjan? “I don’t know,” the third-seeded Serbian said with a laugh. “I would never wear the shirt. My father, I understand. But me? Never. I don’t like myself that much.”

Djokovic hasn’t been much of a favorite in this tournament either. And yet here he is, back in the U.S. Open semifinals after a methodical run through the draw that has proved a study in resilience. Since outlasting countryman Viktor Troicki in a first-round five-setter, Djokovic hasn’t been at his best. But his play has been sturdy enough to keep him from dropping a set.

His 7-6, 6-1, 6-2 victory over France’s Gaël Monfils on Wednesday was all about survival. Never mind if the Ashe Stadium crowd was desperately in need of a revival after sitting through Russian Vera Zvonereva’s snoozer of a quarterfinal triumph over Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi. Given Djokovic’s and Monfils’ reputations for crowd-pleasing, fans had every reason to expect a show. But early on it was just Monfils who obliged, sliding from sideline to sideline and attempting to return one Djokovic groundstroke between his legs to the befuddlement of everyone -- including French footballer Thierry Henry, who looked on from Monfils’ box.

With a freewheeling approach, Monfils broke Djokovic in the third game on the way to taking a 4-2 lead in the first set. But then the wind -- a persistent foe at this year’s Open -- picked up anew, blowing the Frenchman off course. Monfils, who had smacked a third-best 59 aces through his first four matches, was abandoned by his serve (he landed just 56 percent of his first serves in play) and lost feeling in his forehand, spraying 50 errors from that side. “I have a big swing and, as you can see, my adjustment is not that good sometimes,” he said afterward. “I had to completely change the way I play.”

When he tried to hit through the ball, it carried past the baseline. When he tried to take a bit of pace off, Djokovic clobbered his knucklers for winners. Djokovic rallied to force a tiebreaker, then Monfils gifted him six points on errors on the way to conceding the first set. “I don’t have the talent to play in the wind yet,” Monfils said. “I really had a hard time adapting to the extreme conditions.”

Djokovic, meanwhile, adjusted. Rather than counterpunch from the baseline, as is his custom, he came to net more (winning 40-of-59 of those points), tuned out the stadium noise and let Monfils self-destruct. His formula for preserving through the weather was simple: “Good focus and patience, try to hold on to your nerves throughout the whole match and play one point at a time,” said Djokovic, calling the windy conditions the worst of the tournament so far. “I had some struggles when I was coming to net. In the first set I made a lot of unforced errors there because I wasn’t seeing the ball really well.”

An hour and 24 minutes later Djokovic improved his U.S. Open record to 25-5. Instead of basking in the moment and playing to the crowd as he usually does at the end of matches (a recent non sequitur in which he compares playing in the shade to “sleeping with my girlfriend” comes to mind), Djokovic kept his comments brief and his emotions over advancing to his fourth straight semifinal in check.

Of course, the only other man with a streak as impressive as his is Federer. His 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 win over Sweden’s Robin Söderling on Wednesday night landed him in his seventh consecutive U.S. Open semi, where he will face Djokovic on Saturday. Federer has bested Djokovic in the past two semis and crushed him in the ’07 final. “He’s obviously waiting for a breakthrough where he can win this title,” the second-seeded Swiss said. “But he’s gone through me and hasn’t been able to get it done. We’ll see how it goes Saturday.”