NEW YORK -- The official language of New York, that special brand of booing that comes from someplace deep in the diaphragm, blared through Arthur Ashe Stadium late Thursday night, but the odd part about that was its recipient.
Out there on the court, doing a post-match TV interview, making whine upon whine that dredged the jeers, stood the same Novak Djokovic who only 12 months ago had ripened into a darling of the National Tennis Center, reaching the final and enchanting the audiences with dead-on impersonations of other players.
After helping Andy Roddick along with a fourth-set meltdown in a U.S. Open quarterfinal, the model of levity somehow had become a case of uptightness, moaning because Roddick had joshed Tuesday night about Djokovic’s penchant for calling trainers during matches.
When the USA Network microphone tilted toward Djokovic, he basked in his 6-2, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) win on “his court” and “his city, his favorite tournament,” then said, “Obviously Andy was saying that I have 60 injuries last match; obviously I don’t, right?”
“I know they are already against me because they think I’m faking everything, so . . . “
“That’s not nice . . . “
Boos persisted, subsided, then welled up again as Djokovic exited.
Here the 21-year-old Australian Open champion and outstanding No. 3 player had arranged a glam men’s semifinal with Roger Federer, who by day had beaten Gilles Muller, 7-6 (5), 6-4, 7-6 (5). Here Djokovic had made the last four for an incredible sixth time in the last seven Grand Slam tournaments. Yet here somehow he’d wound up with precisely the kind of reception that can hurt a generally affable soul such as his.
By the end of his news conference an hour later, he had apologized twice, noted extreme pressure of recent days and said, “This is exactly the situation I don’t want to be in. You know, fighting with people, fighting with the press. This is absolutely not me.”
The theme of Djokovic-with-ailments long has simmered on the tour with a fresh boil here in Flushing Meadows. In a fourth-round, five-set win over Tommy Robredo of Spain, Djokovic called for the trainer and mentioned an upset stomach to complement ankle and hip injuries.
Robredo intended no humor when he said he found Djokovic’s injuries untrustworthy, a contention Djokovic denies at length, but Roddick employed his fine repertoire of sarcasm and irony when he listed off Djokovic’s maladies in a news conference as “a back and a hip,” “a cramp,” “bird flu,” “anthrax,” “SARS” and “a common cough and cold.”
Djokovic’s displeasure with this comedy looked evident in the frostiness in his half of the handshake after Roddick’s last forehand return had screamed long to close the match.
Roddick had just served for the fourth set at 5-4 and banged in opening serves of 142 and 143 mph for a 30-love lead as the audience readied for a fifth. Then he’d committed two excruciating double faults and watched a gorgeous Djokovic backhand topspin lob sail over his head and plunk down good on break point.
Come the tiebreaker, which Djokovic played masterfully, Roddick wrecked a 15-shot rally at 5-5 with one of the flimsiest netted backhand drop shots the crowd had ever seen judging by its groans and wails. “It’s probably the only shot I nursed in the last two sets,” Roddick said, chalking up the double faults to aggression and professing to lack much regret after a heady tournament that followed a downcast summer.
Per usual of late, Djokovic garnished the win by looking toward his parents et al and pointing to his heart, doing so thrice more after he’d finished the no-look handshake. Roddick exited hastily, and the two seemed to have reached some sort of detente afterward but wouldn’t elaborate.
In one vein, Roddick said, “I figure if you’re going to joke and imitate other people and do the whole deal, then you should take it. Listen, if someone makes fun of me, I’m most likely going to laugh.”
And in another vein, Roddick said, “I don’t think I was over the line. It wasn’t my intention and, you know, I’m sorry he felt that way. Maybe I did him a favor tonight.”
And in the apology vein, Djokovic cited “a clear misunderstanding” and said, “If I exaggerated on the court today and I made a mistake saying that in front of 20,000 people, you know, in his city and his favorite tournament, OK, I do apologize.”
Here he’d had this match that demonstrated his ever-rising capacity to match big talent to big moments -- “I’m maturing more and more,” he said -- and here he’d wound up ‘round midnight in New York saying, “I just, you know, I felt bad in the end.”
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U.S. Open featured matches today, world rankings in parentheses:
Jelena Jankovic, Serbia (2), vs. Elena Dementieva, Russia (5), semifinal, Arthur Ashe Stadium, 1:30 p.m. PDT, pending completion of opening match: It’s the best player never to have won a major against the best player never to have won a major, the choice depending on who’s arguing. And any people arguing probably need, you know, a hobby.
Serena Williams (3) vs. Dinara Safina, Russia (7), semifinal, Arthur Ashe Stadium, not before 3:30 p.m. PDT: As Williams plays the tour’s hottest player, remember she hasn’t won a Grand Slam event since the 2007 Australian Open. And remember that with every fiber of her being she considers this a distortion of the very order of the universe.
Bob Bryan (T-2) and Mike Bryan (T-2) vs. Lukas Dlouhy, Czech Republic (13) and Leander Paes, India (16), men’s doubles final, Arthur Ashe Stadium, 8 a.m. PDT: The California twins, 30, have won five Grand Slam titles but none since the 2007 Australian. Clearly if they don’t get this one, the media need to start asking some serious questions.
-- Chuck Culpepper