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All roads lead to Djokovic for US Open

August 23, 2014
McEnroe: Murray needs to step up

Five months ago, Novak Djokovic nearly humiliated Rafael Nadal in a straight-sets Miami Masters final. After their 40th meeting, Nadal seemed more baffled than angry.

"Easy to analyse," he said. "The opponent was better than me. That's it."

So much better that some people wondered if Djokovic might actually win the French Open, Nadal's private game reserve since 2005. But Nadal managed to win his eighth Roland Garros title in nine years by beating Djokovic handily in the final.

One of the most consistent performers on tour, Novak Djokovic didn't fare well in Toronto or Cincinnati © AP
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The 27-year-old from Serbia rallied, of course, and won at Wimbledon to take his seventh grand slam singles title. His reward? Djokovic married his longtime girlfriend, Jelena Ristic, in Montenegro. They exchanged vows under a gazebo fringed by pine trees overlooking the Adriatic Sea.

Now it might only be a coincidence, but the world No.1 and favourite to win the US Open arrives in New York having lost two of his three matches since he tied the knot.

"It was bad," Djokovic said after he fell in straight sets to Tommy Robredo, a 32-year-old wearing sunglasses more appropriate for a three-year-old, a week ago in Cincinnati. "Many, many, many things are not clicking these two weeks on hard courts."

Many, many, many.

That's a lot. So how and why is Djokovic the favourite in New York? Truthfully, he's the best of some dodgy options.

First, Nadal is sitting at home in Spain nursing a sore right wrist. It's the third major the defending champion has missed in three years, and given that he is 28, it's clear his body is starting to break down. Last summer, he ran the table in Montreal, Cincinnati and New York, and in some ways, it appears he's still paying the physical price.

Andy Murray, the 2012 US Open champion, has seen his world ranking fall to No.9 and has yet to win a title since having back surgery last September. The surprise 2009 winner, Juan Martin del Potro, is sidelined with another wrist injury, and Toronto winner Jo-Wilfried Tsonga lost in his first match in Cincinnati.

That would make 33-year-old Roger Federer, who won the Cincinnati crown for the sixth time (his 80th ATP World Tour title), next in line, according to the oddsmakers.

But the US Open, with its quirky scheduling and sometimes difficult conditions, is the most physical of the grand slams. Djokovic, despite his recent cooling-off period, is best positioned to cope. He has been the most consistent men's player this year; with one slam in each of the past two seasons, a second would solidify his position at the top of the tennis ladder.

Djokovic would become only the fourth player in ATP rankings history to return to the year-end No.1 after falling out of it.

His main complaint after losing to Robredo was that he didn't feel comfortable on the court.

"There are no real issues," he said. "It's just [not] feeling the ball well."

The solution: "Practice, practice."

And that's what Djokovic has been doing for more than a week in New York.

Novak Djokovic comes into the US Open on the back of winning his seventh grand slam at Wimbledon © Getty Images
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"All roads lead to Djokovic," Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob said. "He's got the best hard-court record in the world, which makes him the favourite. His defence, his movement - just his sheer balance - make him extremely hard to beat. The fifth set in the Wimbledon final [against Federer] was huge for him. To me, it looks like Djokovic is re-establishing himself as the alpha male in men's tennis."

For ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, once the coach of Andre Agassi and Murray, Djokovic is the best player, full stop.

"It's his ability to beat you with either offence or defence," Gilbert said. "He can absorb pace as well as anyone I've seen. And the most underrated part of his game - bar none - is a tremendous second serve. Put that together with the best return of serve in the game, and that presents a problem."

Two of Djokovic's younger competitors raved about his game in recent conversations with ESPN.

"He's tough to beat because he's so good at so many things," said Milos Raonic, who reached the Wimbledon semi-finals. "His return of serve, his second serve - and his first serve is better than it was. And one thing you can't say enough: He moves as well as anyone."

Said 21-year-old American Jack Sock: "Djokovic's return of serve ... is the best ever. And his second serve is so strong. That's the key to winning in this game. I practiced with him once, and I've seen a lot of matches on TV. He has everything you want: size, speed and strength."

Now he just needs to put together seven matches in the season's last major.

"I think Djokovic has three more big years in him," Gilbert said. "I'd be shocked if he doesn't get to low double figures for slam titles."

Eight might not be enough, but a win in New York would set Djokovic up nicely for that double-digit run.

This article originally appeared on ESPN.com

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