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Resilient Djokovic advances to semis

by The Associated. Press | September 9, 2021 at 2:45 a.m.
Novak Djokovic reacts after a point during his victory over Italy’s Matteo Berrettini on Wednesday night in the men’s quarterfinals at the U.S. Open. (AP/Frank Franklin II)

NEW YORK -- Never fazed, rarely flummoxed, Novak Djokovic is so collected in best-of-five-set matches even when falling behind, as he has done repeatedly at the U.S. Open.

No opponent, or the prospect of what's at stake, has been too much to handle. Not yet, anyway. And now he's two wins away from the first calendar-year Grand Slam in men's tennis since 1969, along with a men's-record 21st major championship overall.

Djokovic ceded the opening set for the third consecutive match at Flushing Meadows -- and ninth time at a major in 2021 -- but again it didn't matter, because he quickly corrected his strokes and beat No. 6 seed Matteo Berrettini 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 in a quarterfinal that began Wednesday night and concluded after midnight Thursday.

As he came back, his eyes squarely on his end goals, Djokovic found every angle, thwarted every big Berrettini shot and was so locked in he dove and dropped his racket during one exchange yet scrambled, rose and reinserted himself in the point. He lost it, but the message to his foe was unmistakable, essentially amounting to, "I will do whatever it takes."

After 17 unforced errors in the first set, Djokovic made a total of 11 the rest of the way.

When Berrettini made one last stand, holding a break point while trailing 4-2 in the third set, Djokovic steadied himself. He let Berrettini put a backhand into the net, then conjured up a 121 mph ace and a forehand winner down the line to hold, then pointed his right index finger to his ear -- one of many gestures asking the 20,299 in the Arthur Ashe Stadium stands for noise.

Gallery: U.S. Open, quarterfinals

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Four minutes later, that set was his. And 42 minutes later, the match was.

Showing off the shots and poise of someone much more experienced, 18-year-old Emma Raducanu became the second unseeded teen in two days to secure a spot in the women's final four, eliminating Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Belinda Bencic 6-3, 6-4. She is the first qualifier in the professional era to reach the U.S. Open semifinals. And she hasn't even dropped a set yet.

Not bad for someone ranked outside the top 350 in June after going about 1 1/2 years without a match -- in part because of the coronavirus pandemic, in part because her parents wanted her to finish high school.

"I'm not here to chase any records right now," said Raducanu, only the third woman not ranked in the top 100 to make it this far at the U.S. Open and only the fourth qualifier to advance to the semifinals at any major tournament since the Open era began in 1968. "I'm just taking care of what I can do (in) the moment."

Djokovic is 26-0 in major tournaments this season, including trophies on the Australian Open's hard courts in February, the French Open's clay courts in June and Wimbledon's grass courts in July. He beat Berrettini in the final at the All England Club.

Djokovic has added five victories on the U.S. Open's hard courts and will face 2020 runner-up Alexander Zverev in Friday's semifinals. If Djokovic can win that match and Sunday's final, he will join Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962 and 1969) as the only men to claim all four major tennis singles trophies in one season. (Three women have done it, most recently Steffi Graf in 1988; Serena Williams' bid in 2015 ended in the U.S. Open semifinals).

One more Slam title also will break the career mark Djokovic currently shares with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Zverev goes into the semifinals on a 16-match winning streak, including a 1-6, 6-3, 6-1 semifinal triumph against Djokovic en route to the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

The No. 4-seeded Zverev, a 24-year-old German, advanced to the semifinals in New York on Wednesday afternoon by beating Lloyd Harris 7-6 (6), 6-3, 6-4.

Raducanu made her Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon thanks to a wild-card invitation and she made it to the fourth round before stopping during that match when she had trouble breathing.

That tournament allowed the world to begin to get familiar with her style of crisp, clean tennis, managing to attack early in points from the baseline without sacrificing accuracy. By the end against the 11th-seeded Bencic, a U.S. Open semifinalist in 2019, Raducanu had nearly twice as many winners as unforced errors, 23-12.

She also showed gumption, both at the beginning, when she was undaunted by a 3-1 deficit and claimed the next five games, and at the end, when she fell behind love-30 each of the last two times she served before hanging on.

"Obviously, she's very solid," said Bencic, who hadn't dropped a set in the tournament before Wednesday, "to just kind of stay tough till the end and just play her game and kind of not let me in again."

When Bencic double-faulted to get broken and fall behind 3-2 in the second set, she trudged, slow as can be, to a corner of the court to retrieve her towel. When she got to her sideline seat, she whacked her racket against her equipment bag, then plopped herself down and smacked the racket against the ground.

Raducanu jogged to the sideline, showered in applause and cheers from the crowd.

Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, follows through on a forehand to Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, follows through on a forehand to Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, stretches to hit a return to Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, stretches to hit a return to Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Novak Djokovic, foreground, of Serbia, serves to Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Novak Djokovic, foreground, of Serbia, serves to Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, reacts after winning a game in the first set against Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, reacts after winning a game in the first set against Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Novak Djokovic, foreground, of Serbia, returns to Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Novak Djokovic, foreground, of Serbia, returns to Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, watches a return to Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, watches a return to Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, reacts after missing a shot to Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, reacts after missing a shot to Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

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