NEW YORK — Last year, Novak Djokovic was watching the US Open from his couch at home while worrying about overcoming a stressful right elbow injury.
The injury, which required surgery after this year’s Australian Open, ended his streak of playing 51 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments.
That is now a distant memory for the Serb, who is back to being a contender at every Grand Slam contested. While Djokovic initially struggled in his comeback from surgery, by Wimbledon he was ready to do damage again, and competently captured his 13th Grand Slam title.
On Sunday, Djokovic will meet third-seeded Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina, the 2009 US Open champion, in the 23rd Grand Slam final of his career.
The sixth-seeded Djokovic advanced to the final in quick order, bypassing 21st-seeded Kei Nishikori of Japan 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 Friday night. Earlier, del Potro moved into his second career Grand Slam final when leading, 7-6 (7-3) 6-2, world No. 1 Rafael Nadal retired from the match with a knee injury.
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Djokovic’s strategy in the final will be to counter del Potro’s two big weapons: his serve and forehand. The Serb does own a 14-4 lifetime record over del Potro that should bolster his confidence.
This will not be the first encounter between the two at the US Open. They met here in the 2007 third round and 2012 quarterfinals. Djokovic prevailed on both occasions.
“I’ve played him many times on different occasions,” Djokovic said. “We’ve never faced each other in a Grand Slam final, so that’s something new.
“One of the keys of the match will be return; how well I can return, how many returns I can get back in play, but also try to have some depth in that return, and how accurately I can serve myself.”
For Djokovic, the US Open title quest is about more than just picking up a 14th major trophy.
He’s hoping to score back-to-back Wimbledon and US Open titles for the third time in his career. He previously achieved that feat in 2011 and 2015, the two times he won the US Open in seven final appearances in New York.
Del Potro, who underwent four wrist surgeries after winning his lone Grand Slam trophy at the US Open in 2009, shocked Roger Federer in that five-set thriller on Arthur Ashe stadium. It’s no wonder the Argentine constantly refers to the US Open as his favorite tournament in the world.
Nevertheless, winning the title will require more than calling the Open his favorite place.
“It will be a difficult match because we are close friends,” del Potro said. “For sure, we both want to win. But Novak has won the Wimbledon already. He’s playing so good. He will be the favorite to win on Sunday. But I don’t know. When I played Roger nine years ago, he was the favorite to win, as well. I will try to make the surprise again.
“I’m here,” he added. “I’m excited to keep surprising the tennis world, as I did with myself. (You) never know what could happen in the future. So I’m happy just to be a tennis player again after all my wrist problems.”
If del Potro has one special ingredient in his corner it’s that he’s likely to receive a heftier share of the crowd support in the final. He’s a fan favorite in these parts, and coupled with 12 boisterous fans who traveled here from his hometown of Tandil, the stadium will be rocking.
And Djokovic doesn’t hesitate in admitting he understands the appeal of his opponent.
“He's a gentle giant,” Djokovic said. “He really is. He's very tall, has a big game, but at the same time he nurtures the right values in life. He cares about his family. He cares about his friends. He respects everyone. He fights every match from the first to the last point. I think people can relate to that and appreciate what he brings to the tennis.”
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