Novak Djokovic’s bid for a record-setting 21st major singles title and the first calendar-year grand slam in men’s tennis in more than a half-century got off to a winning but strangely muted start at the US Open on Tuesday night with a four-set victory over the Danish teenager Holger Rune.
On court for the first time since missing out the Olympic podium with back-to-back losses in Tokyo nearly a month ago, the best player in the world and top seed in the men’s draw battled through a patch of wobbly form, an opponent brimming with confidence and a less than accommodating Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd to win 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-1 in 2hr 15min and move within six victories of the rarest achievement in his sport.
There were no indications of ring rust in the early stages as Djokovic raced to the opening set in a brisk 26 minutes. But the 18-year-old Rune, a former top-ranked junior who entered Tuesday’s match in a rich vein of form that included back-to-back titles on the minor-league Challenger Tour and a run through last week’s US Open qualifying tournament, quickly endeared himself to a near-capacity crowd in hope of a competitive match with his free-swinging style and animated demeanor.
After Rune broke at love in the second game of the second set and went on to level the match in a tiebreaker, the crowd was unmistakably behind the charismatic underdog as he hung with Djokovic in muscular baseline exchanges while punctuating each big point with appeals for more applause and one spirited fist pump after another. Djokovic would confess afterwards that he mistook the lusty chants of Ruuuuune that cascaded down from the mezzanine between points for something more provocative. “I didn’t know what they were chanting honestly,” he said. “I thought they were booing. It was not an ideal atmosphere for me. But I’ve been in these particular atmospheres before, so I knew how to handle it.”
The top-seeded Serb was quick to right the ship in the third, winning 13 of the first 15 points on his serve and lifting his first-serve percentage to 75% from 49% in the second. But not long after he broke Rune for a 3-1 lead, the youngster summoned a trainer during a changeover while grasping at his left leg. He gamely soldiered forward through extraordinary physical discomfort but from there the outcome was but a formality. Djokovic made quick work of his cramping foil, breezing through the final two sets in less than an hour and into second-round meeting with Tallon Griekspoor, a 25-year-old from Netherlands ranked 121st in the world.
“Unfortunately my fitness let me down,” Rune said. “I started cramping already in the beginning of the third set. From there on was tough. I knew if I had to win, I really had to fight for every point. With my body at this point, it was impossible. I’m not saying if I was physically 100% I would beat him for sure, but I would definitely have a chance.”
The result moved the top-ranked Djokovic to a perfect 22 wins from 22 matches at majors this year, inching him ever closer to becoming the first men’s player to win all four of the sport’s bedrock tournaments in the same calendar year since Rod Laver in 1969. Should the 34-year-old Djokovic lift the trophy in 12 days’ time, he would also break a three-way tie atop the all-time men’s grand slam leaderboard with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, neither of whom are in attendance this year.
Yet much of the chatter as Djokovic bears down the home stretch of history will after Tuesday inevitably turn to his complex relationship with the New York crowd, a beef that goes back more than a decade to a time when he was contending with a reputation as a player who melted under pressure and at times abused the medical timeout rule.
Back in 2008, Djokovic did not take it kindly when Andy Roddick sardonically rattled off a laundry list of maladies during a press conference ahead of their third-round match-up, suggesting “bird flu”, “anthrax” and “Sars” as potential future excuses to be made by the Serb. After humbling the top-ranked American in a match during which his service faults and errors were met with cheers, Djokovic needled the crowd during an on-court interview until a smattering of boos was stoked into a cacophony. The frosty relations have never completely thawed, even after he won the tournament in 2011, 2015 and 2018.
That may well change over the next fortnight as the enormity of the accomplishment at stake comes into clearer focus, but the atonal tenor of Tuesday’s opening foray hardly ensures it.
“Obviously you always wish to have the crowd behind you, but it’s not always possible,” said Djokovic, who has not lost in the first round of a major since the 2006 Australian Open when he was 18. “That’s all I can say. I mean, I don’t know. I’ve been focusing on myself and what I need to do. I guess I have to just see how it feels on the court and try to keep it together. That’s all I can do.”
One former US Open champion then yielded the stage to another on Ashe as sixth-seeded Bianca Andreescu, who captured the season-ending grand slam on her main-draw debut two years ago only to withdraw from last year’s tournament due to injury, grinded out a 7-5, 4-6, 7-5 win over Switzerland’s Viktorija Golubic in a 2hr 49min marathon that spilled into Wednesday morning.
The 20-year-old Canadian received a visit from the trainer due to stomach issues during the second set and trailed 2-4 in the third only to break Golubic in each of her final three service games, winning 12 of the 15 points on her opponent’s racket. When Golubic sent a forehand astray on match point at 12.45am, Andreescu let out a guttural scream as she doubled over behind the baseline in jubilation.
“She gave me no choice,” said Andreescu, who pounded nearly three times as many winners (40) as her opponent (15) on the night and will face the American Lauren Davis in the second round. “I had to dig deep, I had to fight, I had to bring back that old Bianca in a way, something that I really haven’t had to do this year.”
Andreescu’s after-hours win, aside from improving her lifetime record at the tournament to 8-0, dropped the curtain on an opening round at Flushing Meadows that saw the sport’s biggest names almost entirely avoid early pitfalls. All of the top 20 seeds in the women’s singles went through to the round of 64, while only No 9 Pablo Carreño Busta, No 14 Alex de Minaur and No 20 Lorenzo Sonego were tripped up among the men.