Might 27-year-old American tennis journeyman Denis Kudla metamorphose from frog to prince Friday night? Might he be able to dethrone reigning U.S. Open king Novak Djokovic?
Kudla, never ranked higher than 53rd and currently No. 111, is in the Open’s third round for the first time. In 21 previous major-tournament appearances, he has been as far as the fourth round only once. Earlier this summer, he was run out of Wimbledon in the second round by 16-time major champ Djokovic. In straight sets.
Furthermore, in the to-form world of men’s tennis, Djokovic is one of only seven different champions in the last 59 majors. A tough man to stop. (Two of those seven moved on yesterday: Stan Wawrinka with a four-set decision over France’s 74th-ranked Jeremy Chardy and Rafael Nadal by virtue of Australian wild card Thanasi Kokkinakis’ forfeit because of a shoulder injury. Also among Thursday’s winners was American John Isner, the No. 14 seed, over 37th-ranked Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany.)
But Djokovic was so bothered by a painful left shoulder two nights ago that he wasn’t sure he would make it through the evening — much less the tournament. Flinching on his service toss, regularly wincing on his backhand, he repeatedly called for a trainer and, after the match, said he was “hoping” that “consultations with experts in sports medicine” would allow him to go on.
So, Denis Kudla: Hit to Djokovic’s backhand? Kudla laughed. “We’ll see,” he said.
Technically, Kudla already is behind Djokovic after Kudla’s second-round match against Serbian Dusan Lajovic, the Open’s No. 27 seed, was postponed by Wednesday’s rain—while Djokovic had the luxury of playing on schedule under the Arthur Ashe Stadium roof.
“Playing Djokovic is tough enough as it is,” Kudla said, “and he’s got the rest and I don’t. But as long as you’re not having to play five hours back-to-back, it’s OK. It’s fine.” Kudla needed just two hours and 41 minutes to prevail against Lajovic Thursday, 7-5, 7-5, 0-6, 6-3.
So, bring on the champ? “You want to play the top guys early [in the tournament],” Kudla said. “That’s when they’re at their most vulnerable. Play them in the quarters or semis, that’s when those guys are five matches deep, playing some unreal tennis, and it almost feels like it’s impossible.”
Just how physically inhibited Djokovic is at this point hardly is clear, and certainly not being overrated by Kudla, who watched Djokovic’s halting Wednesday victory over 56th-ranked Juan Ignacio Londero of Argentina on television.
“It looked like [Djokovic’s discomfort} was in waves,” Kudla said. “It looked like he had games where it hurt him and it looked like there were games where he was totally fine. So, left shoulder injury, it’s strange. I’ve had something like that before and it almost feels like it’s a whiplash injury of some sort. It’s, like, how did that happen?
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he came back being totally fine. I don’t think it’s anything major. At the end of the day, if he’s on one leg, he’ll play.”