NEW YORK -- Novak Djokovic has made a career out of raising the bar in tennis. In his 6-2, 7-6, 6-4 quarterfinal victory over Juan Martin del Potro, he taught us that even sweeps -- yes, sweeps -- can be played at a terrifically high level:
1. One moment can make a match. That moment came during the second-set tiebreaker, with Djokovic leading 5-3. Djokovic tossed a ball high into the cool night air and, with one fierce swing of his racket, set the ultimate cat-and-mouse exchange in motion. What followed was a cavalcade of drop shots, lobs and even a behind-the-back, over-the-shoulder reply from del Potro. For a beat, the mighty Argentinian seemed ready to concede a Djokovic lob winner when, really, he was merely reversing the thrusters on his 6-foot-6, 214-pound frame and, soon, screeching toward the baseline and slapping that no-look reply. Of course Djokovic produced the winning shot in the end, but that didn't matter to an Ashe Stadium capacity crowd that yelped and gasped and, finally, roared with approval. If ethereal tennis has a soundtrack, that was the first single.
This exchange was more than the point of the match. It was the point of the fortnight. And it came during a thrilling tiebreaker that elevated the quality of play to its highest point yet this tournament. This must sound like blasphemy coming on the heels of the sterling five-set quarterfinal between David Ferrer and Janko Tipsarevic, which set the previous standard with its ferocious rallies. But Djokovic and del Potro didn't just hit hard; they hit long. The pivotal tiebreaker set lasted 84 minutes -- 11 longer than Djokovic's first-round victory. That frantic penultimate point, which went for 20 strokes, was just one of many that seemed as if they'd go on forever -- which is almost as long as it will remain in our collective imagination.
2. There is more to del Potro that just his size. There's his grace, which he showed while ceding the stage following his fourth-round victory over the retiring Andy Roddick. There's his gentleness, which del Potro showed early in Thursday night's match against Djokovic when he interrupted his service routine to pick up a moth that had wandered near the baseline and blow it out of harm's way. And there's his English, which has improved by leaps and bounds since he won it all here in 2009. His tdhoughts on Djokovic resonated more than any of his booming groundstrokes. "He was too much for me," del Potro said. "I always try to fight every, every point and, sometimes, it's difficult when you have in front of you a warrior."
The box score will remember this match as a straight set defeat for del Potro when, really, the match was far tighter. Furthermore, it's one that del Potro lost on effort, not because of injury. Yes, he falls to 1-10 in matches against players ranked in the top three, but it won't be long before he's bursting through that door again.
Djokovic thinks he wasfortunate to bounce del Potro. "It could have gone really either way," said second-seeded Serb, who lost to del Potro a month ago in the bronze medal game of the London Olympics. "I was very much aware of how good he is and how powerful he can be and how dangerous he can be on this surface."
3. Djokovic is the man to beat. Until Thursday night, he had enjoyed a quiet run through the draw. But in advancing to his sixth straight U.S. Open semifinal -- a streak that trails only Ivan Lendl (8), Roger Federer (8) and Jimmy Connors (12) in length -- Djokovic announced himself as the clear favorite. What's more, with no Federer or Rafael Nadal to worry about at this late stage of a Slam for the first time since 2004, Djokovic could not have charted an easier path to a sixth major title. On Saturday, he'll face Ferrer, against whom he has a 3-0 record in slams. Ferrer can match Djokovic's fight and fitness; the Spaniard proved as much in his four-hour, 31-minute victory over Tipsarevic. But, alas, Ferrer's weapons don't compare with Djokovic's nuclear-grade cache. Most overlooked is Djokovic's elastic 6-foot-2 frame; he's constantly stretching its limits to dig groundstrokes out of deep corners. Del Potro, the biggest slugger on tour, hit only 25 winners past him.
Still, that's not to say that Ferrer is weak. Anything but. "He is one of the biggest competitors we have in the game," Djokovic said. "People do not, I think, talk [about him] too much. They overlook him. You need to earn your points against him."
Ferrer, on the other hand, may have to steal his to have a chance.