Wednesday was another long day of U.S. Open players functioning as lab rats in some sort of heat-tolerance experiment. Temperature heat and intensity heat. Another day of testing their ability to concentrate on the moment—no matter the weather, the score, the opponent, the past, the crowd.
But the challenge for them to remain focused —t he secret of success they so often cite— grew exponentially as developments tended toward the bizarre.
Four games into the second set of Wednesday night’s Novak Djokovic-John Millman quarterfinal, Millman walked to the net to ask Djokovic if Millman could leave the court to change his shorts, soaked by perspiration in humid heat that felt like the mid-90s.
The odd six-and-a-half-minute break appeared to help Djokovic regroup on his way to a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory. Millman took another locker room break to again change clothes at the end of the second set.
For much of the first hour, Millman, the humbly ranked (No.55) 29-year-old Australian who shocked Roger Federer in the previous round, was drawing Djokovic into lengthy baseline rallies. He was forcing Djokovic to play extra points, frustrating Djokovic by saving four break points in a single game, running down Djokovic’s drop shots and benefitting from Djokovic flubbing a handful of easy volleys and overheads.
With Djokovic serving at 3-2 in the third set, he was called for a serve-clock violation, then missed a forehand to 30-40 and purposely let the serve clock run out again, costing him his first serve. Whereupon he doubled-faulted to lose the game. On the receiving end, Djokovic failed to convert 16 or 20 break points.
That whole drama played out in the Arthur Ashe Stadium night session after Japan’s Kei Nishikori and Croatia’s Main Cilic had worked mightily through a rematch of their 2014 Open final.
Their duel lasted more than four hours, five roller-coaster sets during which Cilic lamented that he had “just a little bit lost focus” at times, eventually spelling his doom in a 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4 loss.
“It wasn’t easy, but I tried to stay calm. And I really focused,” Nishikori said.
Focus. That Cilic had won that 2014 title match had to be dismissed. “Just focus what I have to do today,” he said. “That match was four years ago . . . We both needed to bring the tennis and bring the really good game to the match. It’s not that just psychologically, it’s going to be taken care of.”
Throw out the seedings. Nishikori was No. 21, Cilic No. 7. Forget that Cilic had won two of their three major-tournament meetings. Pay attention to right now.
“I came out great_6-2, 4-2 serving, and everything was going great,” Cilic said. “Then he won six games in a row there, converted three of three break points. I would connect and play three, four, five, six points good and create myself opportunities. And then I would waste it.”
Nishikori, in 35 previous major tournaments, had made it as far as the semifinals only twice, both at Flushing Meadows—in 2014 and 2016. But that wasn’t going to change his chances Wednesday, any more than having had to skip the 2017 Open with a torn wrist tendon.
“It wasn’t easy,” Nishikori said. “But I fought through somehow. And especially after coming from injury, I think I’m enjoying this challenge.”
In 1995, Japan’s Shuzo Matsuoka reached No. 46 in the world. So when a 14-year-old Nishikori moved to Florida in 2004 to begin training at the Bollettieri tennis academy, he was billed as “Project 45” in a campaign to make him the highest ranked player in his nation’s history, which he is.