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U.S. Open: Men’s semifinalists all highly motivated

Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland returns to Juan Martin

Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland returns to Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina in a quarterfinal at the U.S. Open at Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Stan Wawrinka is a man who looks as if he just got out of bed. Mussed hair, unshaven, apparently dressed in the dark with the gaudy plaids he wore during his 2015 French Open title run or this summer’s loud fuchsia tennis outfit.

So it somehow made sense that he was playing until 1:20 in the morning Thursday, a four-set U.S. Open quarterfinal victory over wild card Juan Martin del Potro.

That result ended what seemed to be a main 2016 Open theme through 10-plus days: A reconstructed tennis center — with the addition of the Arthur Ashe Stadium roof and new, enlarged Grandstand — featuring a rebuilt del Potro, the 2009 Flushing Meadows champ finally near the top again after four wrist operations.

Going into Friday’s men’s semifinals, then, there is the search for a new motif.

Could it be the persistence of Wawrinka, a two-time major champ who has played pedestrian tennis at times and had to survive a match point in his third-round scuffle against 64th-ranked Briton Daniel Evans?

Might it be defending champion Novak Djokovic’s cruise in the E-ZPass lane, staying remarkably fresh by winning two matches when his opponents retired and a third in a walkover? Djokovic is matched against French veteran Gael Monfils, the No. 10 seed who never has beaten Djokovic in 12 attempts.

“There is no question about it,” Monfils said. “Novak is the favorite.” But favorites do lose. No. 2 Andy Murray, No. 4 Rafael Nadal and No. 5 Milos Raonic all have been upset.

What about the grit of Wawrinka’s semifinal opponent, No. 6 seed Kei Nishikori, who kept his wits and his game together through a vertigo-inducing five-set quarterfinal against reigning Wimbledon champion Murray?

“There is a chance, for sure, if I play good,” Nishikori said. “It’s going to be a big goal for me to get this title.”

Wawrinka has won three of his five duels with Nishikori, but one of the losses was a 2014 five-set quarterfinal at the Open when Nishikori was eventual runner-up to Marin Cilic.

In the end, one topic that applies to all four semifinalists is the obvious presence of motivation.

“What should I do?” Wawrinka said to the question of maintaining expectations. “I’m 31 years old. What do you want me to do? Just go to the beach? Not do anything? Do you ask that to Rafa also or to Novak or to Andy?

“I love my sport. It’s my passion. I have a chance to play in front of amazing crowd. If you look at the match [against del Potro], you have your answer. It’s amazing feeling to be out there.”

Djokovic, whose 12 major-tournament titles put him behind only Roger Federer’s 17 and 14 apiece for Pete Sampras and Nadal, certainly identifies with those feelings.

To keep winning and chasing titles, “I don’t find it tiring,” he said. “I really enjoy playing this sport. I have love and passion for it. I’m blessed. Not many people in the world can say, you know, they have managed to achieve their dreams, do the job they really enjoy doing and be very successful at it.

“I like competing. I like being out there and moving my own boundaries and seeing how far I can go.”

Meanwhile, one piece of the original del Potro theme still holds despite his exit — the thrill of being in the arena again. “The crowd made me so happy again,” he said, “and I don’t even mind the score.”

New York Sports