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Despite struggle, Novak Djokovic keeps cool under pressure for US Open first-round win

Despite struggle, Novak Djokovic keeps cool under pressure for US Open first-round win

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NEW YORK — For a moment on Tuesday night, it seemed as if the opening round of the US Open could be the site of Novak Djokovic‘s latest implosion.

Playing 18-year-old qualifier Holger Rune, who was making his major main draw debut, Djokovic dominated from the start and rolled to a 6-1 first-set victory. Then things got interesting.

Rune found his rhythm — and the overwhelming support of the vocal Arthur Ashe crowd — and held off Djokovic in a second-set tiebreak. Djokovic’s 60-match win streak in major first rounds suddenly seemed in jeopardy.

But Rune’s legs began cramping in the third set, and as he struggled to move, Djokovic pounced. He easily won the next two sets for the victory, 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-1. Still, as unexpected as the challenge was, it was perhaps exactly the test Djokovic needed to open one of the most important tournaments of his career.

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A 20-time major champion defeating a qualifier ranked No. 145 in the world isn’t exactly a surprise — especially when the stakes are as high as they are for Djokovic with a calendar Grand Slam and a record-setting 21st Slam title on the line — but things haven’t been so straightforward of late and there was much uncertainty about what to expect from him entering the year’s final major.

Before Tuesday, the last time we saw Djokovic play a competitive tennis match was exactly one month prior at the Tokyo Olympics. It ended with two broken rackets and an equally damaged ego. His quest for the elusive “Golden Slam” had already been dashed at the Olympics in the semifinals, and now he had missed out on the bronze medal, losing to Pablo Carreno Busta, as well.

The 34-year-old had expressed hesitation about going to the Games, but ultimately his ambition couldn’t be stopped. He had won the year’s first three majors and was fresh off his latest victory at Wimbledon, and the temptation to do something no male player had ever done was simply too tantalizing for the record-obsessed Djokovic.

He quickly became the toast of the Olympic Village — seen in countless Instagram stories hanging out with athletes from various sports — and looked poised to stand atop the podium at the event’s conclusion. But he was unable to fulfill his mission, and when it became apparent he couldn’t even win the consolation prize, he couldn’t hide his frustration, tossing a racket into the empty stands and smashing another on the court. He was quick to find the exit once the match was over, and moments later, he withdrew from the mixed doubles bronze-medal match citing a shoulder injury.

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He left Tokyo empty-handed and his reputation — the one he has always seemed so desperate to restore — dented, yet again, by his temper and an attitude unbecoming of one of the sport’s greatest champions. The air of invincibility he had seemed to achieve throughout the 2021 season had suddenly evaporated and he appeared not just beatable, but vulnerable and a victim of his own emotions. He then opted to skip the US Open hardcourt lead-in events.

And if any of that had caused unease for his fans, recollecting Djokovic’s last time playing on Ashe would hardly quell any concerns about his state of mind. During the fourth round of the 2020 US Open, Djokovic was infamously disqualified from the tournament after hitting a line judge with the ball in a moment of anger late in a tight first set.

What had once seemed like a sure thing, following the pandemic break and the absence of his two biggest rivals in Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, ended in an instant. The last image of Djokovic at the Olympic tournament was of him silently walking to a chauffeured car in the parking lot, leaving more questions than answers in his wake.

But Djokovic didn’t seem bothered by his experience in Tokyo, nor his last effort in New York, on the court Tuesday. Against Rune, Djokovic was in his championship form early and needed less than a half hour to take the opening set. But in the second set, he struggled with his serve and later said the nerves began to creep in.

Still, he showed little emotion — positive or negative — and remained composed throughout. Even as the crowd loudly roared “Ruuuuuuuune” after his young opponent won the second set or any crucial point, Djokovic was expressionless. As Rune pumped his arms in celebration after clinching the tiebreak and the crowd reached a fever pitch, Djokovic sat in his chair, stared ahead and told himself to stay in the moment.

While Rune’s injury made the mission easier, Djokovic did just that and never allowed Rune back in the match.

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“The importance of the moment, you go through really a roller coaster of emotions on the court,” Djokovic said after the match. “Just every time I lose that concentration and focus, I try to bounce back and bring my attention back to the moment, which I think conscious breathing helps a lot.”

Djokovic will now have to find a way to stay present for six more matches to join Rod Laver as the only men in the Open Era to win all four Grand Slam titles in a single season, and to surpass Federer and Nadal with major title No. 21.

He wasn’t shy about his hopes to do just that before play got underway.

“I’m very inspired to play my best tennis here,” Djokovic said Friday. “I don’t want to say it’s now or never for me because I think I’m going to have more opportunities in my life to win Slams. I don’t know if I’m going to be having more opportunities to win calendar Slams. That’s why it’s a very unique opportunity. At the same time, I don’t need to put any additional pressure to what I already have, which is pretty big from my own self and from of course people around me.”

Djokovic welcomes that if it means opportunities to make history.

“But I thrive under pressure, as well,” he said. “I’ve done that many times in my career. Pressure is a privilege, it truly is. This is what you work for day in, day out, all your life, to put yourself in a unique position to win Grand Slams and to make history. At the end of the day I’m a big tennis fan, fan of history. I admire this sport. I love it. I have this chance, and I’m going to try to use it.”

Djokovic’s desire to be loved and admired by his peers and tennis fans is well known, and reaching milestones would certainly help his case. But he is often his own worst enemy. From his occasional outbursts and antics on the court to anti-vaccination comments or his ill-fated Adria Tour in 2020, Djokovic is a polarizing figure and a lightning rod for controversy.

Despite all that, winning changes everything. Few would argue with Djokovic’s status as the GOAT if he were able to win No. 21, no matter their views of him off the court.

He’ll just have to get past himself first. And if Tuesday was any indication, he might finally be able to do just that.

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