Djokovic's lack of play could be blessing — or curse

9:02 PM ET

NEW YORK — Top-seeded Novak Djokovic spent a short day in the office at the US Open on Friday, lashing forehands and feathering drop shots for just 31 minutes before Mikhail Youzhny threw in the towel with a hamstring pull while trailing 4-2 in the first set.

It was still a longer workday than Djokovic experienced Wednesday, when he never punched in at the National Tennis Center at all. Jiri Vesely, his second-round opponent, issued a walkover due to a sore arm.

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    Coming into this tournament, Djokovic was the one worrying about injuries. A tender right arm and a sore left wrist that flared up out of nowhere during the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro were of great concern. Suddenly, his lack of match play since a first-round singles loss in the Olympics to Juan Martin del Potro is a potential issue.

    Has the extra time off a curse or a blessing?

    “Considering the stage of the season, the amount of matches I’ve played, what I’ve been through with my body, I think it’s actually good to have some days off, and then shorter matches,” Djokovic said Friday.

    But in the same breath, the Serbian star added, “From the other side, sure, as you are approaching second week of the Grand Slam you want to have match play and you want to have time spent on the center court before you face one of the top players.”

    Djokovic is a master of equivocation, but he doesn’t hesitate to say this is the first time he’s dealt with an interlude of this kind at a Grand Slam event. He’s had at least one walkover before; Fabio Fognini pulled out before their quarterfinal at the 2011 French Open. And at the Rome Masters in 2008 he advanced thanks to back-to-back retirements early in his quarterfinal and semifinal. Nicolas Almagro and Radek Stepanek lasted a set each on that occasion.

    Here in New York, Djokovic will have played just six games in five days when he takes the court Sunday. He’s the first man in the Open era to win three matches by playing just four complete sets.

    Djokovic didn’t exactly complain about his light workload, but on Friday he did ask if he might be allowed to remain on Arthur Ashe Stadium court for an unscheduled 45-minute practice session. His wish granted, Djokovic eagerly shed his dressy black-and-white attire and slipped into a gym rat’s gray T-shirt.

    Co-coaches Boris Becker and Marian Vajda fed him balls as Djokovic worked on his serve with a practice partner. He missed many serves and frequently grabbed the back of his neck with his left hand and appeared to twist his head, as if trying to work out a kink. But he dropped that gesture once he began to play points and showed no signs of being impaired. He said he was pleased with the progress he’s made with his fitness.

    “The arm is doing very well,” he said. “Everything is going in the right direction. I feel significantly better now than I have just at the beginning of the tournament.”

    Djokovic may be rounding into form in a nick of time. Andy Murray, the No. 2 seed, has shown no sign of taking his foot off the gas after his triumph at Wimbledon and gold medal performance in Rio. Once a reliably unreliable player despite his undisputed place among the elites, Murray is playing with an uncharacteristic degree of consistency. He may be on a career-shaping run, a version of Djokovic’s glorious run in 2011.

    Rafael Nadal, seeded No. 4, is as much of a sleeper here as a man of his stature can be; people are talking about him without really talking about him. His confidence is growing by the day, and there’s scant evidence of the anxiety that hounded him during his prolonged slump.

    Del Potro, the 2009 US Open champion, is everyone’s darling because of all he’s been through with his injuries. He’s just crushing the ball. Delpo can hurt Djokovic, as he’s done four times in 15 matches and twice in the Olympics (before Rio, del Potro defeated Djokovic in the 2012 bronze medal match in London).

    That’s just for starters. No. 3 Stan Wawrinka, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Kei Nishikori and Gael Monfils are all dangerous veterans and playing well.

    Djokovic appeared to have the tour in a stranglehold as little as two months ago, as Wimbledon unfolded. His grip has been loosened considerably, and people have been reminding him of it. He said he doesn’t really mind.

    “There were stages in my career where I was very much into it, following who says what,” Djokovic said, referring to all the speculation about whether he’s slipping. “That affected my mind. Not anymore.”

    Djokovic said he’s more self-reliant now. He’s less influenced by the opinions and theories of others. “I know what are my capabilities and I know what I am able to do, what I’m able to achieve. If I play the right tennis, I can win against anybody in any surface.”

    All he needs now is the chance to go out and advance in the tournament by actually playing matches.

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