Ever since 2008, Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic have played tennis against one another in Asia and the Middle East, in France, Canada, Ohio and New York. They have played in major tournaments, ATP events and the Davis Cup; on grass, clay and hardcourts.
There has been great variety in the settings of their 13 matches, but one common thread: Djokovic has won them all.
The latest encounter in that lopsided series will come in the men’s semifinals of the United States Open on Friday after Djokovic, the No. 1 seed, outlasted Feliciano Lopez, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (2), in a nighttime quarterfinal that did not end until 1:07 a.m. Wednesday.
In another quarterfinal hours earlier, No. 9 Cilic withstood a spirited comeback from Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to finally win, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (3), 6-4, in a match that lasted a minute shy of four hours in sweltering conditions in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
In a tournament where oppressive heat and humidity have challenged many players, Tuesday’s conditions were particularly demanding. It was especially challenging in the Cilic-Tsonga match, which began in the late afternoon. Cilic had difficulty even explaining it.
“It was very demanding,” he said. “A very difficult match psychologically, as well. Two sets to up — two sets to zero.” He paused. “I lost my words. I don’t know what I’m talking anymore.”
But he was very clear about his upcoming opponent. Djokovic and Cilic have each won one United States Open — Cilic is the defending champion and Djokovic won in 2011 — and they are from neighboring countries, Djokovic from Serbia and Cilic from Croatia. Head to head, there is little in common.
“Toughest matchup for me,” Cilic said. “I haven’t beaten him in my career. I had close matches the last few years, but I haven’t found the right formula to be able to win the match.”
Lopez thought he found the right formula in the second set. After a dismal opening set, he dominated the next one and forced Djokovic into a near frenzy. As Lopez and Djokovic went to their chairs during the changeover after the second set, Djokovic pulled off his saturated shirt, slapped his equipment bag a couple of times with his racket and screamed at the members of his coaching staff in his box, including his coach, Boris Becker.
Djokovic was not playing his best tennis, but he regained his composure and came out of his chair to win the third set, thanks in part to a big service game that he won after falling behind, 15-40. That put him ahead, 5-2, and after Lopez held, Djokovic served out the set.
Lopez and Djokovic were on serve, 5-5, in the fourth set, with Lopez pressuring Djokovic by chipping in with his backhand slices and charging headlong to the net. As 1 a.m. passed, the players went to a tiebreaker. There, Djokovic asserted his dominance and put a quick end to the match before it could reach a fifth set. Djokovic has now reached his ninth consecutive U.S. Open semifinal.
The only time he and Cilic faced one other at the Open was in the third round 2008, their second meeting, and Djokovic won it in four sets with two tiebreakers. Since then, both have markedly improved and become champions. Perhaps then, Cilic will have more confidence in this particular setting.
“When you look at the statistic that he won that many matches against me, doesn’t go in my favor, absolutely,” Cilic said. “But when you’re coming to the match, it’s always going from zero. It’s a new match. It’s a different stage. And I’m feeling good on the court.”
He looked exceptionally good in the first two sets when he became the first player to break Tsonga’s serve in this tournament, and he did it three times, once in each of the sets he won.
“Today I just served, I would say, very bad compared to the other days,” Tsonga said.
Before the third set, Tsonga received medical attention from a trainer, who applied a wrap just below Tsonga’s left knee. From that point forward, it was as if a different player had arrived on the court. He played better and later saved four match points, but still looked hampered on some points and had difficulty in moving about the court as quickly as he usually does.
In the fifth set, Cilic won a service game with a slice backhand drop shot to take a 5-3 lead. He used three drop shots in critical moments of the match, including one time in the fourth set when he had a match point.
But when he was leading by 5-4, he relied on power. He served a 130-miles-per-hour ace wide at 15-30, and then, at 30-30, he rifled a 135-m.p.h. missile up the middle for another ace, his fastest serve of the match.
On his fourth match point, he double-faulted. At deuce, Tsonga whipped an inside-out forehand cross court for a winner. But Cilic forced deuce again by pushing Tsonga wide and then smashing home a backhand volley. On the next point, Cilic hit behind the exhausted Tsonga for a winner, bringing up his fifth match point. Finally, with a fourth hour of tennis approaching, Cilic forced Tsonga deep into his right corner, and Tsonga hit a forehand long.
At the net the players had a quick, awkward handshake, and Cilic said he did not know why. It could have been that at certain points in the match the usually dispassionate Cilic used fist pumps to get the crowd on his side.
“I was surprised, actually,” Cilic said. “I really don’t know why. But Jo shook my hand and said congratulations. But that was it. I don’t know for the rest. If I provoke him or not I have no idea. I hope not.”
Tsonga expressed no ill feelings toward Cilic and said that Cilic made the better shots.
“I would like to be a winner today, but unfortunately I lost,” Tsonga said. “It’s a lot of frustration, of course. But that’s tennis.”