Don't miss any stories Follow Tennis View

No Djoking Matter: Novak Djokovic Sweeps Through Primetime Opener

Aug 27th 2013

A pair of key firsts arrived for former US Open junior champion Ricardas Berankis on Tuesday night.  The highest-ranked tennis player in Lithuanian history must have felt a long way from home as he walked onto Arthur Ashe Stadium ahead of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.  A champion in Australia and a finalist at Wimbledon this year, Djokovic launched his campaign for a fourth straight US Open final. 

Despite his excellent results at majors in 2013, the Serb brought little recent momentum to New York.  Losses in the semifinal and quarterfinal of the Rogers Cup and Cincinnati, respectively, revealed an edgier and less confident Djokovic than viewers have seen for most of his tenure at the top.  Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray stood higher on most lists of US Open favorites, so Djokovic entered the tournament with something to prove.

A nervy start from Berankis allowed the world No. 1 to establish control over the proceedings straightaway.  At just 5-foot-9, the underdog could not expect to neutralize the best return in the ATP or hit through Djokovic efficiently from the baseline.  The rallies that unfolded as a result played into the Serb’s hands, allowing him to display his elastic movement and penetrating groundstrokes.  Berankis also showed off crisp court coverage of his own, however, as well as some brilliant returns of serve and down-the-line backhands that echoed his opponent’s greatest weapon.

When Djokovic served for the first set, he tossed in a careless game that recalled some of his struggles on serve this summer.  Berankis earned three break points during that game and would have converted one of them had not a mishit smash clipped the baseline.  Always ready to pounce on a reprieve, Djokovic converted his first set point and left the Lithuanian to think about what might have been.  Berankis had not played poorly for much of that set, once he overcame his initial nerves.  Yet he could not string together his sudden flashes of shot-making to earn himself more than one game.

A notable burst of athleticism came from Djokovic early in the second set.  Covering a Berankis drop shot, he slid on the hard courts as though they were clay while finding an irretrievable angle.  To his credit, the underdog stayed somewhat within range by finding fiercer first serves—but only for so long.  Another break at love in the seventh game preceded a hold at love in the eighth as Djokovic sealed a two-set lead. 

Not since Roland Garros 2010 has an opponent rallied against the Serb from that position, and Berankis never had rallied from losing the first two sets before.  The third set thus may have seemed a foregone conclusion to both men.  Perhaps for that reason, Djokovic grew frustrated during the multiple-deuce game that opened it, although he harnessed his patience just long enough to break and then withstand a break point on his own serve in the next game.

After exactly one hour, the finish line lay in sight.  Berankis virtually waved a white flag by donating his third break at love of the match.  Some loose groundstrokes crept back into Djokovic’s game at that stage, diminishing the quality of play over the last several games.  After the two men exchanged breaks, the world No. 1 served out the match at his first opportunity, completing an 82-minute demolition.

If one wanted to quibble with Djokovic’s performance at all, one might point to the eight break points that he encountered on serve against an opponent who is not an exceptional returner.   Beyond the break points, Djokovic also faced several 30-30 and deuce situations on his serve, not quite expected in a first-round match.  But the absence of any tension or drama in the match probably caused his focus to loosen more than it will in later rounds against worthier opponents.  Therefore, it seems premature to dwell on those numbers excessively.

Djokovic next will face either German veteran Benjamin Becker or Czech giant-killer Lukas Rosol.  The upset of Grigor Dimitrov earlier today means that he will not face a notable opponent until at least the start of the second week.