Novak Djokovic Plays Alexander Zverev in U.S. Open Semifinal

“A good fight.” “A battle.”

This, invariably, is Novak Djokovic, late in the night, usually effectively previous midnight, when one other day of labor is lastly finished, when the world has emptied and he sits in entrance of a microphone, his piercing eyes an odd mixture of glazed and steely, and he tries to place into phrases what he has simply endured.

To so many tennis gamers, their sport exists as a sort of artwork. Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, the world’s third-ranked participant, talks about tennis as a type of self-expression.

To Daniil Medvedev of Russia, who’s No. 2 in the world rankings, tennis is a chess match, requiring the flexibility to assume a number of photographs forward, to manage the middle of the courtroom as if it’s the heart of a chess board, to make the fast strikes wanted to shift from protection to offense in an immediate.

Then there may be Djokovic, the participant who stands two matches away from pulling off probably the most hallowed achievement in the sport — successful all 4 Grand Slams in the identical calendar 12 months. For Djokovic, tennis isn’t artwork, or ballet, and it’s actually not a sport. It is fight, a road brawl in which there’s just one survivor.

“A battle.”

“A good fight.”

“I can go the distance,” he stated because the clock ticked near 1:30 a.m. Thursday, fittingly utilizing a boxing expression after his three hour, 27 minute duel with Matteo Berrettini of Italy in the quarterfinals. “Actually I like to go the distance.”

For almost two weeks, Djokovic, the 34-year-old Serbian, has confronted opponents who’re youthful, some by greater than a decade. Several of them are greater than he’s, and seemingly far stronger. “I don’t want to wrestle with him,” Djokovic joked after beating Berrettini, his 25-year-old opponent, who’s 6-foot-5 and greater than 200 kilos.

And but, Djokovic has left all of them not simply defeated but in addition crushed.

Holger Rune, a cocky 18-year-old from Denmark who took a set off him in their first spherical match, may barely stroll by the center of the third set, crippled by cramping that set in after 90 minutes of chasing Djokovic’s blistering forehands to each nook of the courtroom.

Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Jenson Brooksby, a 20-year-old American, gave Djokovic all he may deal with for a set-and-a-half in the fourth spherical. But inside a couple of extra video games, a medical coach was hovering at his chair, treating him for a hip damage he aggravated in the course of the unmatched bodily check that enjoying Djokovic has develop into.

The signature moments that evening got here when Djokovic adopted up his on-the-run passing photographs by staring down his 6-foot-Four foe.

He stated he needed Brooksby “to feel” his presence on the courtroom, to grasp that he was dealing with somebody with no intention of exhibiting any mercy, irrespective of how hobbled he is perhaps.

“I wanted to wear him down,” he stated of Brooksby, “and it worked.”

Battlegrounds are acquainted territory for Djokovic, a lover of wolves, the product of a area that was war-torn throughout his childhood. One of his coaches, Goran Ivanisevic, a Croatian, stated that the Balkans bred people who find themselves determined to show their resourcefulness to a world that, as he put it, anticipated nothing from you.

For Djokovic, in so some ways, this U.S. Open has develop into a microcosm of a profession marked not simply by on-court battles with opponents, however by career-long fights towards so many different forces in the sport: fights towards historical past, to do what no participant has finished earlier than by taking the lead for many Grand Slam titles; towards a tennisphere that so beloved its binary duel between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and most well-liked to not have Djokovic crashing their Rafa-Roger lovefest. And there may be the endless struggle towards the tens of hundreds of tennis followers who come to his matches and roar for him to lose, caring little who the opponent is. (If Novak loses, Roger and Rafa win, their logic goes.)

Credit…Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

The jeering jarred Djokovic on his first evening right here, as the gang roared “ROOOOOON!” time and again and confirmed little appreciation for the beginning of Djokovic’s quest to attain one thing that was thought-about too troublesome in this period, with the three greatest-ever gamers competing unexpectedly. He was terse in his on-court interview after Rune was completed. He deserted his trademark gesture of pushing his coronary heart out to the gang. He was blunt in a post-match information convention.

“Obviously you always wish to have the crowd behind you, but it’s not always possible,” he stated. “That’s all I can say.”

Two matches later, with the jeering reaching full throttle as Kei Nishikori tried to outlive, Djokovic pulled off a collection of inconceivable photographs on the key second of the third set. He put his finger to his ear after the primary two, demanding the noise that lastly surged behind him. After a 3rd, he squinted and glared on the crowd as he sauntered to his chair for the changeover, sending a really clear message — I’m going to beat him and I’m going to beat you.

Always, although, the first struggle is on the courtroom, and it’s a battle he begins with a head begin, as a result of the gamers on the receiving finish of his blows have satisfied themselves that nothing lower than one of the best match of their lives will suffice.

Credit…Sarah Stier/Getty Images

“You have to be perfect,” Alexander Zverev, his semifinal opponent, who beat him on the Olympic Games in Tokyo six weeks in the past, stated earlier this week. “Most of the time you can’t be perfect. That’s why most of the time people lose to him. You have to win the match yourself. You have to be the one that is dominating the points.”

Berrettini appeared as if he may need a shot Wednesday evening in the quarterfinal.

Everything about Berrettini is large — his shoulders, his chest, the best way he stalks the courtroom and unleashes his booming serve and big forehand, plus a Usain Bolt-like stride that sends him from the baseline to the web seemingly in three fast steps. For 80 minutes he took each blow Djokovic tried to land and gave it again, prevailing 7-5 in the primary set, sending the teeming stadium full of 23,000 followers right into a frenzy.

Djokovic, although, was simply getting began, elevating his degree to win the following three video games and ensuring Berrettini knew how way more he was going to wish to give you to prevail.

Within 40 minutes it was all even. Just earlier than the three-hour mark, a couple of minutes previous midnight, Djokovic was cruising towards the end. Berrettini was nonetheless blasting 130 mile per hour serves, however Djokovic was someway blasting them proper again at his ft and onto the traces. When he ripped a crosscourt forehand that Berrettini may solely watch whiz by, the large Italian slumped his shoulders and shook his head.

Credit…Elsa/Getty Images

Once extra, Berrettini stated, Djokovic had made him sweat in a method different gamers by no means do, had taken his early shot sq. in the mouth when he misplaced the primary set, simply as he needed to Berrettini in the Wimbledon ultimate, and someway come again to the courtroom stronger.

“He takes energy from that set that he lost,” Berrettini stated.

Berrettini had loads of firm in defeat. By midnight, when Djokovic had made it clear that his evening would finish simply as all of the others had, maybe half the gang had gone residence. The solely ones left chanted “Nole, Nole, Nole, Nole…,” inserting Djokovic’s nickname into the Ole chant.

Once extra he had fought all of them, and received.

“Five sets, five hours, whatever it takes,” he stated in the bowels of the stadium, simply earlier than he left. “That’s why I’m here.”