U.S. Open: Medvedev stuns Djokovic, denying calendar Slam bid

NEW YORK — A game from the end of his bid for what would have been the first calendar-year Grand Slam in men’s tennis since 1969, Novak Djokovic covered his face with a towel, hiding his tears during a changeover.

For 27 Grand Slam matches in 2021, on hard courts, clay courts and grass, Djokovic could not be deterred, could not be beaten. Needing one more victory, in the U.S. Open final Sunday against Daniil Medvedev, to complete a season sweep of major titles and to claim the record 21st of his career, Djokovic could not come through.

Outplayed by someone using a similar style to his own, Djokovic came up just short of those two historic milestones, losing, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, to first-time major champion Medvedev at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

What was in Djokovic’s thoughts as he sat there on the sideline, knowing full well that his quest was moments from its conclusion?

“Relief. I was glad it was over, because the buildup for this tournament, and everything that mentally, emotionally, I had to deal with throughout the tournament in the last couple of weeks, was just a lot. It was a lot to handle,” Djokovic said at his news conference. “I was just glad that, finally, the run is over. At the same time, I felt sadness, disappointment – and also gratitude for the crowd and for that special moment that they’ve created for me on the court.”

Until Sunday, the top-ranked Djokovic had been sublime at the sport’s four most important tournaments, enduring the burdens of expectations and pressure over the past seven months and, in New York, the past fortnight.

He won the Australian Open in February, beating Medvedev in the final in straight sets, the French Open in June and Wimbledon in July, pulling even with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at 20 Grand Slam titles, the most for a man in the history of a sport that dates to the 1800s.

The last man to complete a true Grand Slam by going 4 for 4 at the majors in a single season remains Rod Laver, who did it twice – in 1962 and 1969 – and was in the stands Sunday. The last woman to accomplish the feat was Steffi Graf in 1988.

Instead, Djokovic joins Jack Crawford in 1933 and Lew Hoad in 1956 as men who won a year’s first trio of Grand Slam tournaments and made it all the way to the U.S. Open final before losing.

“I do feel sorry for Novak, because I cannot imagine what he feels,” said Medvedev, a 25-year-old from Russia who had been 0-2 in major finals. “Knowing that I managed to stop him, it definitely makes it sweeter, and brings me confidence for what is to come.”

Djokovic, a 34-year-old from Serbia, simply was far from his best on this particular day.

“Just energy-wise, I felt slow,” said Djokovic, who could not create the kind of comeback he had in each of his previous four matches – and six others in Grand Slam action this year – when he dropped the opening set.

“I know I could have, and should have, done better,” he said.

Djokovic made plenty of mistakes, 38 unforced errors in all. He wasn’t able to convert a break chance until it was too little, too late, going just 1 for 6. He showed frustration, too, destroying his racket by pounding it three times against the court after one point, drawing boos from the crowd of 25,703 and a code violation from chair umpire Damien Dumusois.

A lot of Djokovic’s issues also had to do with the second-ranked Medvedev, who used his 6-foot-6 frame to chase down everything and respond with seemingly effortless groundstrokes – much the way Djokovic wears down foes – and delivered pinpoint serving.

“He was amazing. Just congratulate him, full credit from his mentality, his approach, his game, everything,” Djokovic said. “He absolutely was the better player and deserved to win, no doubt about it.”

Medvedev won 20 of his first 23 service points, establishing a pattern. He finished with 16 aces and 38 winners in all, 11 more than Djokovic. And Medvedev employed a strategy his coach, Gilles Cervara, described as hitting more balls down the middle of the court, rather than trying to find angles that would Djokovic to pick up balls on the run.

“He’s so good that every match is different. He changes his tactics, he changes his approach,” Medvedev said about Djokovic.

“I had a clear plan, which did seem to work. Was he at his best? Maybe not today. He had a lot of pressure,” Medvedev said. “I had a lot of pressure, too.”

Nerves, distracting noise from spectators and cramps that started in his legs got to Medvedev at the very end. He served for the match at 5-2 and was a point from winning before double-faulting twice in a row. At 5-4, he had a second match point and double-faulted again. On the next chance, though, a 129 mph service winner finally finished the job, and Medvedev toppled over to the court on his side with his tongue hanging out, which he explained afterward was inspired by a goal celebration from a soccer video game.

During the trophy presentation, Medvedev addressed Djokovic, offering praise for “what you accomplished this year and throughout your career” and adding, “I never said this to anybody, but I’ll say it right now: For me, you are the greatest tennis player in history.”

In recent years, there has been constant discussion and debate about which member of the so-called Big Three – Federer, who turned 40 last month, Nadal, 35, or Djokovic – deserves to be considered the best of the bunch and the “GOAT” (“Greatest of All Time”).

Even with Sunday’s setback, Djokovic has accumulated statistics that help people make the case for him. He is the only one of that dominant trio to have won four majors in a row across two seasons, in 2015-16. He is the only one with at least two titles at each major tournament. He is the only player who has won each of the next-tier Masters 1000 events at least twice, too. He has spent more weeks at No. 1 than anyone since the ATP computerized rankings began in 1973, surpassing Federer for that accolade in March. And he holds the edge in head-to-head matchups against both of his long-time rivals.

After a five-set win over Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Alexander Zverev on Friday night, Djokovic looked ahead to what awaited in the final and declared, “I’m going to put my heart and my soul and my body and my head into that one. I’m going to treat the next match like it is the last match of my career.”

But Medvedev, who lost only one set in the entire tournament, never allowed Djokovic to get into this match.

From the start, Djokovic was not quite himself. After flubbing three break points early in the second set, the last with a sliced backhand in the net, he pounded his racket against his thigh – one, two, three, four times, perhaps as disappointed in his footwork as his form.

Thousands in the audience tried to boost him by chanting his nickname, “No-le! No-le! No-le!” After some of Medvedev’s faults, some in the stands would applaud, considered poor form in tennis and repeatedly admonished with a “please” from Dumusois.

By the end, the deficit grew too large for Djokovic, the climb too steep.

“I was below par with everything, to be honest,” he said. “So just one of these days where, unfortunately, wasn’t meant to be.”

Medvedev had lost both previous times he played in a major final, with Djokovic beating him in straight sets this year at the Australian Open.

“After the final in Australia, we had the feeling that Daniil didn’t have this fire that can help your game to be much stronger, especially against a player like Novak,” said Gilles Cervara, Medvedev’s coach. “So this had to change, for sure, to play this final at another level.

“Our feeling yesterday and today was that he was ready to compete and to be at high level.”

The Russian has been there for a while, especially on hard courts. He leads all men’s players in wins and titles on that surface since 2018 and had reached the U.S. Open semifinals in each of the last three years.

At his best, he is as good as anyone on a hard court – and way better than Djokovic on Sunday.

“I mean, he was hitting his spots very well,” Djokovic said. “He came out very determined on the court. You could feel that he was just at (the) highest of his abilities in every shot.”

Especially on his serve, which Cervara felt hadn’t been good enough this summer. Medvedev had 16 aces and put constant pressure on Djokovic with his serve, winning 42 of 52 points on his first serve.

“He served very good today,” Cervara said. “Maybe not at the end, but with the pressure, the tension, it’s a bit different.”

Medvedev clearly planned to enjoy his first major title.

“Russians know how to celebrate,” Medvedev said. “Hopefully, I will not get in the news. If I (do), it’s going to be in a good way. But I’m going to definitely celebrate the next few days.”

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Medvedev overcomes pressure, Djokovic to win U.S. Open

NEW YORK — Daniil Medvedev had outplayed the man he considers the best ever in tennis for about two hours. Then it was time to finish off Novak Djokovic.

That’s when Medvedev’s serve and his body started to falter. He double-faulted on his first match point. He did the same thing on his next one while trying to end Djokovic’s quest for a calendar-year Grand Slam.

“Second one was like in the middle of the net,” Medvedev said.

Eventually, he overcame the pressure and his opponent, beating Djokovic 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 on Sunday in the U.S. Open for his first Grand Slam title.

Medvedev had lost both previous times he played in a major final, with Djokovic beating him in straight sets this year at the Australian Open.

“After the final in Australia, we had the feeling that Daniil didn’t have this fire that can help your game to be much stronger, especially against a player like Novak,” said Gilles Cervara, Medvedev’s coach. “So this had to change, for sure, to play this final at another level.

“Our feeling yesterday and today was that he was ready to compete and to be at high level.”

The Russian has been there for a while, especially on hard courts. He leads all men’s players in wins and titles on that surface since 2018 and had reached the U.S. Open semifinals in each of the last three years.

At his best, he is as good as anyone on a hard court — and way better than Djokovic on Sunday.

“I mean, he was hitting his spots very well,” Djokovic said. “He came out very determined on the court. You could feel that he was just at (the) highest of his abilities in every shot.”

Especially on his serve, which Cervara felt hadn’t been good enough this summer. Medvedev had 16 aces and put constant pressure on Djokovic with his serve, winning 42 of 52 points on first serve.

“He served very good today,” Cervara said. “Maybe not at the end, but with the pressure, the tension, it’s a bit different.”

Medvedev took a long pause between serves to wait out some fan noise on his first match point while leading 5-3. He didn’t think the crowd was trying to heckle them, he figured the fans just wanted to see Djokovic prolong the match.

The No. 1 player did, then held to cut it to 5-4.

“My legs were gone after 5-3. At 5-4, left leg, I almost couldn’t walk,” Medvedev said. “If you really look at the replay, when I walked to the towel, my leg was just going behind. I was trying not to show it. If Novak feels it, it’s not good.”

The next match point produced another sloppy serve before Medvedev banged one in at 129 mph that Djokovic couldn’t get back into play.

Medvedev then fell slowly and awkwardly to the court, explaining that that move was a nod to a goal celebration in a soccer video game.

His real celebration was still to come.

“Russians know how to celebrate,” Medvedev said. “Hopefully, I will not get in the news. If I (do), it’s going to be in a good way. But I’m going to definitely celebrate the next few days.”

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U.S. Open: Djokovic rallies again as Grand Slam bid reaches semis

  • Novak Djokovic, left, and Matteo Berrettini shake hands after Djokovic won their U.S. Open quarterfinal on Wednesday night in New York. (Photo by Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

  • Novak Djokovic hits a return to Matteo Berrettini during their 2021 US Open Tennis tournament men’s quarter-finals match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York, in the early hours of September 9, 2021. (Photo by Ed JONES / AFP) (Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images)

  • Matteo Berrettini returns the ball to Novak Djokovic during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

  • Novak Djokovic reacts after missing a shot to Matteo Berrettini during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

  • Matteo Berrettini reacts after winning a game in the first set against Novak Djokovic 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 returns to Matteo Berrettini 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 stretches to hit a return to Matteo Berrettini 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, 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 hits a return to Novak Djokovic 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, serves against Jenson Brooksby, of the United States, during the fourth round of the US Open tennis championships, Monday, Sept. 6, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

  • Novak Djokovic serves to Matteo Berrettini 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, returns 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, of Serbia, watches 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 reacts as he plays against Matteo Berrettini of Italy during his Men’s Singles quarterfinal match on Day Ten of the 2021 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 08, 2021 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

  • Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, reaches for a shot from Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

  • Novak Djokovic, foreground serves to Matteo Berrettini 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 reacts to the crowd during his quarterfinal match against Matteo Berrettini at the U.S. Open on Wednesday night in New York. Djokovic won, 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3, to move within two wins of a record-setting 21st major title and the first calendar-year Grand Slam in men’s tennis in more than 50 years. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

  • Novak Djokovic celebrates his victory over Matteo Berrettini during their 2021 US Open Tennis tournament men’s quarter-finals match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York, in the early hours of September 9, 2021. (Photo by Ed JONES / AFP) (Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images)

  • Alexander Zverev, of Germany, returns a shot to Lloyd Harris, of South Africa, during the quarterfinals of the US Open tennis championships, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

  • Lloyd Harris, of South Africa, returns a shot to Alexander Zverev, of Germany, during the quarterfinals of the US Open tennis championships, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

  • Alexander Zverev, of Germany, returns a shot to Lloyd Harris, of South Africa, during the quarterfinals of the US Open tennis championships, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

  • Alexander Zverev, of Germany, returns a shot to Lloyd Harris, of South Africa, during the quarterfinals of the US Open tennis championships, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

  • Alexander Zverev, of Germany, returns a shot to Lloyd Harris, of South Africa, during the quarterfinals of the US Open tennis championships, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

  • Emma Raducanu, of Great Britain, returns a shot to Belinda Bencic, of Switzerland, during the quarterfinals of the US Open tennis championships, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

  • Belinda Bencic, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Emma Raducanu, of Great Britain, during the quarterfinals of the US Open tennis championships, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

  • Emma Raducanu, of Great Britain, returns a shot to Belinda Bencic, of Switzerland, during the quarterfinals of the US Open tennis championships, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

  • Emma Raducanu, of Great Britain, reacts after defeating Belinda Bencic, of Switzerland, during the quarterfinals of the US Open tennis championships, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

  • Emma Raducanu, of Great Britain, reacts after defeating Belinda Bencic, of Switzerland, during the quarterfinals of the US Open tennis championships, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

  • Karolina Pliskova, of the Czech Republic, tosses the ball for a serve to Maria Sakkari, of Greece, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

  • Maria Sakkari, of Greece, returns against Karolina Pliskova, of the Czech Republic, in the quarterfinals of the US Open tennis championships, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

  • Karolina Pliskova, of the Czech Republic, returns against Maria Sakkari, of Greece, during the quarterfinals of the US Open tennis championships, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

  • Maria Sakkari, of Greece, reacts to winning a point against Karolina Pliskova, of the Czech Republic, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

  • Maria Sakkari, of Greece, clenches her fist after defeating Karolina Pliskova, of the Czech Republic, 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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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.

Afterward, Djokovic cut off a question during his on-court interview, sensing where it was headed, and said: “Do not ask me anything about history. I know it’s there.”

As he came back and improved to 26-0 in Grand Slam play this season, 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.

“The best three sets I’ve played in the tournament, for sure,” he said.

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.

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

Djokovic already earned 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, defeating Berrettini in the final at the All England Club.

Djokovic has added five victories on the U.S. Open’s hard courts and now faces 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.

“I’m pumped,” Djokovic said, looking ahead to what awaits. “The bigger the challenge, the more glory in overcoming it.”

The other men’s semifinal is No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, a two-time major finalist, against No. 12 Felix Auger-Aliassime. They won their quarterfinals Tuesday.

The fourth-seeded Zverev, a 24-year-old German, advanced Wednesday afternoon by beating unseeded Lloyd Harris, 7-6 (6), 6-3, 6-4.

Hours later, both Djokovic and Berrettini showed signs of nerves on a muggy evening with the temperature at 75 degrees and the humidity at 80%. Applause, whistles and roars preceded the initial serve, a 124 mph ace by Djokovic, a three-time U.S. Open champion.

Banned from the tournament a year ago because of the coronavirus pandemic, fans are clearly enjoying being a part of all of this again.

They created a fugue of competing chants of Djokovic’s nickname, “No-le! No-le!” and a shortened version of Berrettini’s first name, “Mat-te! Mat-te!” Some greeted Djokovic’s missed serves with claps, considered a no-no in this sport, and some – perhaps the same folks – lamented Berrettini’s faults with a communal “Awwwww.”

Djokovic’s form was not at its finest early, with more mistakes than he could fathom – he rolled his eyes, put a palm to his forehead, muttered toward those in his entourage.

Berrettini uses his 6-foot-5, 209-pound frame to generate punishing power in serves and forehands; Djokovic called him the “Hammer of Tennis.”

But if any player is equipped to dull that style, it’s Djokovic, whose instincts, reflexes, agility and mobility are superior. So he, unlike most other players, can return a 131 mph serve and not merely get it in play but do so with enough intention to lead to a missed backhand by Berrettini, as happened when Djokovic broke to lead 3-1 in the second set.

Still, Berrettini did manage to deflect the pair of first-set break points he faced with booming service winners – one at 132 mph, the other 134 mph – and then converted his fourth opportunity with a running cross-court forehand winner to lead 6-5. One game, and four set points, later, Berrettini owned the opener thanks to an errant forehand by Djokovic.

The match already was 77 minutes old. Berrettini left for a bathroom break to change his clothes; Djokovic sat on the sideline, draped a white towel around his neck and began the process of preparing to turn things around, as he so often does.

“I managed to forget about it, move on,” Djokovic said.

He also lost the first set in the third round, against Kei Nishikori, and in the fourth, against Jenson Brooksby, before winning in four both times. Did that against Berrettini at Wimbledon, too.

Maybe, Djokovic joked after this match, the early deficits amount to “good tactics, in a way.”

Didn’t take long for Djokovic to impose himself this time, either, thanks in large part to cleaning up his act by cutting down the errors, with three in the second set and three in the third, during which the retractable roof was shut because of expected rain.

Just holding serve became an ordeal for Berrettini, so much so that he let out a sigh of relief when he finally held after getting broken three times in a span of four games across the middle two sets. By then, though, he had given away the second and had fallen behind 3-0 in the third. The fourth also reached that score, and Djokovic was one step closer to history.

QUALIFIER RADUCANU, SAKKARI INTO WOMEN’S SEMIS

When Emma Raducanu got to Flushing Meadows to try to win her way through qualifying and earn what would be a berth in her second Grand Slam tournament, she was not planning on a particularly long stay.

Look at her now, two weeks into this adventure: The 18-year-old from Britain is the first qualifier in the professional era to reach the U.S. Open semifinals. And she hasn’t even dropped a set yet.

“My flights were booked at the end of qualifying,” Raducanu said with a chuckle Wednesday, “so it’s a nice problem to have.”

Showing off the shots and poise of someone much more experienced, the 150th-ranked Raducanu became the second unseeded teen in two days to secure a spot in the final four, eliminating Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Belinda Bencic, 6-3, 6-4, in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Not bad for someone ranked outside the top 350 in June after going about 1½ 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.”

Raducanu has won all 16 sets she has contested through eight matches in New York – three during the qualifying rounds and another five in the main draw. On Thursday, she will face No. 17 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece, a semifinalist at this year’s French Open.

Sakkari won 22 consecutive points she served in one stretch and beat No. 4 Karolina Pliskova, a two-time major runner-up, 6-4, 6-4, on Wednesday night to follow up her victory over 2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu in the previous round.

“I’m impressed,” Sakkari said with a smile during her on-court interview when she was informed of that serving streak. “I trusted my serve, but now I’m going to trust it even more.”

The other women’s semifinal will be 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez of Canada against No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.

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.

Just like the prior afternoon, the Ashe spectators lent their considerable support to a teenager whose name is not yet well-known and who’s not yet all that accustomed to gracing these stages.

On Tuesday, a day after turning 19 and sharing cupcakes with Raducanu and others in the locker room, it was Fernandez getting past No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5), to become the youngest semifinalist at Flushing Meadows since Maria Sharapova in 2005.

On Wednesday, it was the even-younger Raducanu’s turn.

Her father is Romanian, her mother is Chinese, and Raducanu was born in Toronto, before the family moved to England when Emma was 2.

Mom and Dad did not make the trip to New York – and they’re not exactly in constant contact with their precocious daughter.

“I haven’t actually called my parents for quite a while,” Raducanu said with a sheepish smile and a roll of her eyes. “Yesterday, like the day before, they were ghosting me.”

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Roger Federer holds off Frances Tiafoe, 19, in 5 sets to advance at U.S. Open

  • Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, reacts after breaking Roger Federer, of Switzerland, during a first-round match of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. Federer won the match. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, reacts after breaking Roger Federer, of Switzerland, during a first-round match of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. Federer won the match. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Roger Federer, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roger Federer, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Roger Federer, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roger Federer, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, returns a shot to Roger Federer, of Switzerland, during the first round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, returns a shot to Roger Federer, of Switzerland, during the first round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Roger Federer, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roger Federer, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, returns to Roger Federer, of Switzerland, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, returns to Roger Federer, of Switzerland, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Roger Federer, of Switzerland, stretches to return a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roger Federer, of Switzerland, stretches to return a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Roger Federer, right, of Switzerland, and Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, shake hands after Federer won their match at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roger Federer, right, of Switzerland, and Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, shake hands after Federer won their match at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Roger Federer, of Switzerland, celebrates after defeating Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roger Federer, of Switzerland, celebrates after defeating Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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NEW YORK — Roger Federer already has dropped two more sets at the U.S. Open than he did during his entire two weeks en route to the title at Wimbledon.

Worried about a recent back problem that kept him from getting ready the way he usually does for a Grand Slam tournament, Federer had to overcome an early deficit and a late lapse Tuesday night to edge 19-year-old American Frances Tiafoe, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4, in a compelling first-round contest under the Arthur Ashe Stadium roof.

”I didn’t have the preparation I was hoping to get,” Federer said. ”I always knew I was going to come in feeling rusty or not great.”

The third-seeded Federer, whose most recent of five championships at Flushing Meadows came in 2008, was broken in the first game and dropped the opening set of the topsy-turvy match. He then appeared to take control by grabbing eight of nine games to seize the second and third sets. But he let that lead slip away. There was more trouble when Federer served for the match leading 5-3 in the fifth and got broken.

”I was quite up and down,” Federer said, acknowledging that he was cautious with his footwork and had some trouble seeing the ball properly. “I was misjudging distance, being a bit cautious.”

Tiafoe’s take: ”He won by the skin of his teeth.”

Federer’s initial match point came at 5-3, 40-30, but Tiafoe staved that off, then broke. He produced a cross-court forehand winner at an unbelievable angle to earn the chance, before converting it with a terrific forehand passing winner down the line. Tiafoe roared and pumped a fist, yelling to the crowd, which included his twin brother Franklin, and sprinted to the sideline for the changeover.

When he had to come back out and serve, Tiafoe was a bit flat. Federer wasted his second match point with a netted backhand. On the third – with Federer’s wife, Mirka, covering her eyes in the stands – Tiafoe hit a stumbling forehand into the net.

”In these best-of-five-set matches,” Federer said, ”you have a lot of lives sometimes.”

It was the 36-year-old Federer’s 79th career victory at the U.S. Open, equaling Andre Agassi for second-most. Only Jimmy Connors has more, with 98.

Federer played with the roof shut at Ashe for the first time. He missed last year’s tournament, when the retractable cover made its debut, because he took off the second half of 2016 to let his surgically repaired left knee and a bad back fully heal.

”It felt like people were happy to see me again,” Federer said.

In 2017, he is 36-3 with five titles, including the Australian Open and Wimbledon, where Federer won every set he played across seven matches while collecting his record eighth trophy at the All England Club and 19th Grand Slam championship overall.

For more than a half-hour Tuesday, it appeared as if Federer was still dealing with the after-effects of having tweaked his back during a loss in the hard-court final at Montreal this month. He sat out the following week’s tournament at Cincinnati.

At least, Federer said, his back was not in pain Tuesday.

“To get through a five-setter, you have to be OK, somehow,” Federer said. “So I believe this is going to give me great confidence in the body and also in my game. My hope and my belief is that it’s only going to get better from here.”

“It was more than a test, it was a good one. It was exciting.”

Tiafoe, who is from Maryland and now is based in Florida, is ranked 70th and has never been past the second round at a major tournament. Tiafoe was profiled on an HBO “Real Sports” segment earlier this year. His parents fled the war-torn West African nation of Sierra Leone before settling in Maryland and his father worked as the janitor at a tennis academy.

This was his second match against Federer. Tiafoe pushed Federer to a first-set tiebreaker when they faced each other in March at the Miami Masters before losing in two sets.

“He is the greatest of all time,” Tiafoe said after the match. “It’s something I’ll think about for a while. Eventually, I’ll win more than I lose these.”

 

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