Djokovic, Wawrinka bring the Open to a close

The curtain comes down Sunday afternoon on the 2016 US Open, with a championship match that features the game’s No. 1 player against a man playing in his first career Flushing final. After a bruising two weeks in which 126 others fell by the wayside, this day will feature a final showdown between two proven champs—each with just a little more left to prove. Top seed and defending champion Novak Djokovic takes on No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka in the final act of what has been two weeks of high drama. At day’s end, one player will own the stage—and tennis’ toughest title. With so much on the line and so much talent between the lines, this final act promises to close the Open in style.

If you were handicapping this event a couple of months ago, you might well have predicted that its final would feature Djokovic against a Swiss star—but probably not this Swiss star. But with five-time US Open champion Roger Federer sidelined from this year’s event, rehabbing his surgically repaired knee, his countryman Wawrinka has risen to the occasion, making his way into the US Open final for the first time in his career.

Though this is his debut in the Open’s title match, Wawrinka is no stranger to Grand Slam glory. The 31-year-old has two Slam titles on his resume, including the 2014 Australian Open and the 2015 French. Here, the Swiss had twice before reached the semis, but each time, his advance was halted in that round.

Wawrinka has had a solid season, winning three titles—two of those on hard courts. His best pre-Open Slam showing in 2016 was a run to the semis at Roland Garros. Competing here in his 47th consecutive Grand Slam main draw, Wawrinka is one of the sport’s most durable—and ferocious—competitors. Including his first six matches here, he is now 118-44 at the majors and 237-135 on hard courts.

Wawrinka’s toughness and durability have been on full display throughout this event. Only two of his matches have been won in straight sets. One went five; three others went four, including his gutsy, gritty win over 2014 US Open finalist Kei Nishikori in the semis here on Friday. In that match, Wawrinka seemed overmatched by Nishikori’s speed and quickness in the first set but regrouped in the second and let his toughness take over, outhitting, out-hustling and eventually out-lasting the Japanese star to secure the four-set win. In the oppressive heat and humidity, Wawrinka refused to wilt, and his fitness and focus were the difference in separating himself from his increasingly fatigued opponent. Wawrinka may go through more towels than a pool boy at a Miami Beach hotel, but he’ll never throw one in, fighting for every point like a pit bull with designs on a T-bone.

Defending champ Djokovic, competing in his 48th consecutive Slam, can be a pretty impressive marathon man in his own right, boasting a 27-8 lifetime mark in five-set matches, including a perfect 2-0 record in going the distance this year. Of course, during this Flushing fortnight, his long-distance endurance has yet to be tested. In a bizarre set of circumstances, the men’s top seed has played only three complete matches in reaching this point; advancing through the second round with a walkover and winning his third-round and quarterfinal matches when his opponents were forced to retire with injuries. In gaining his 21st career Slam final—second only to Federer all-time—the 29-year-old Serb has spent a total of just eight hours, 58 minutes on court. Conversely, Wawrinka has logged 17 hours, 54 minutes of court time.

Although the game’s No. 1 leads all men with seven titles on the year, including winning the Australian Open and Roland Garros, a nagging wrist injury caused Djokovic to struggle this summer, losing in the third round of Wimbledon and the first round at the Rio Olympics. But here, he’s shown no ill effects from the wrist in the handful of matches he’s played, hitting the ball off both wings with authority. He’s won 50 of 59 service games, 73 percent of first-serve points and has 108 winners against 88 unforced errors. In rallies of five to eight shots, the Serb has won 111 and lost 72; in rallies of nine or more shots, Djokovic is 53-28. Those numbers figure to loom large against a ground game as potent as Wawrinka’s.

In his uneven semifinal win over Frenchman Gael Monfils, Djokovic seemed very much on top of his game in racing out to a 5-0 lead and taking the first two sets, as the Frenchman mixed up his tactics, alternately playing rope-a-dope with the top seed, while going all out on other shots. But with the day’s heat and humidity weighing heavily upon both men, Djokovic dropped the third set before securing the 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 triumph.

While the match may not have been pretty (Djokovic had just 26 winners against 27 unforced errors), the win lifted the Serb into his seventh US Open final, tying him with Federer and Jimmy Connors for third-most in the Open era.

The top seed, trying to become the first man to successfully defend a US Open title since Federer went back-to-back in 2007-08, owns a lopsided 19-4 advantage over the Swiss, including wins here in 2012 (fourth round) and 2013 (quarterfinals).

A win for Djokovic would mark his 13th major crown, breaking the tie at 12 he now holds with Roy Emerson, putting him behind only Federer, Rafael Nadal and Pete Sampras on the list of all-time men’s major title holders. Wawrinka, in a Slam final for the third year in a row, is looking to become just the fifth man in the Open era to win two or more Slam singles titles after turning 30.

This will be a good one, the sort of heavyweight slugfest that usually has ropes around it. In a furious four, Djokovic is still standing to answer the bell—and accept the title of 2016 US Open men’s champion.

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