The second-best player from Switzerland, Stan Wawrinka, was well aware of his task Sunday night against the world’s No. 1 player and defending U.S. Open champion. In 24 previous matches against Novak Djokovic, Wawrinka had lost 19 times.
But Wawrinka also was aware that the last time he played Djokovic at the Open, in the 2016 championship final, he had crafted a four-set upset. Wawrinka also was cognizant of the fact that although he had been 4-21 in previous matches against No. 1 players, all four of those victories came in Grand Slam tournaments.
Aside from that ’16 match in Flushing Meadows, Wawrinka knocked off Rafael Nadal in the 2014 Australian Open final, Djokovic in the ’15 French Open title match and Andy Murray in the ’17 French final. All of those opponents ranked No. 1 at the time.
So Sunday night, going at Djokovic hammer and tongs before a rocking full house of 24,712 at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Wawrinka built a 6-4, 7-5, 2-1 lead and made it clear to Djokovic, who has been struggling with a left shoulder injury, that it was best for the defending champ to surrender.
The victory puts Wawrinka through to the Open quarterfinals. He joins countryman Roger Federer, No. 5 seed Daniil Medvedev and unseeded Grigor Dmitrov, with the other fourth-round matches scheduled for Monday.
Wawrinka broke Djokovic’s serve in the match’s fifth game, then held serve by striking three consecutive aces after facing double break point in the next game. Djokovic worked his way back in the match with a 2-0 lead in the second set, but Wawrinka’s combination of power and athleticism was relentless.
The two — good friends who spent the week before the Open practicing together — were punching holes in each other with searing groundstrokes, then mixing in drop shots and lobs for extra spice.
But after Wawrinka worked his way back from 3-4 by winning four of the next five games in the second set, and got a nose ahead in the third, Djokovic decided his injured shoulder couldn’t withstand any more.
“It was a surprise for sure” when Djokovic threw in the towel, Wawrinka said. “I was focused on myself because I know he can fight. I was feeling great on the court. That was the most important thing.”
Djokovic offered no details. “I don’t want to talk about my injuries,” he said. “I told you it was the left shoulder and that’s all that I’ll talk about. I retired. I congratulate Stan.”
Wawrinka, three times a major-tournament champion, has gotten back to full speed this year after almost two years of rehabilitating a surgically repaired knee. The inactivity dropped his ranking to 263.
It certainly helped him to recall that 2016 U.S. final, “knowing I have the game to beat him in this stadium,” he said. “I’ve been moving well, feeling good lately. Playing well.
“It’s never the way you want to finish a match,’’ Wawrinka said. “I feel sorry for Nole [Djokovic]. We’re good friends. But that’s what you practice for, to show your best ever in the big match.”