On day two of the U.S. Open, regardless of the court, the story was the same: The searing heat was taking a toll on the players, with the dark-blue pavement emanating temperatures of up to 109 degrees during the worst part of the day. In fact, poor Julien Benneteau was so overcome with the conditions, he vomited in a corner during his match. (He still won, the champ.) In the heavy August air, consistency was an issue, and an unusual amount of Tuesday’s matches went the distance, spilling into hotly contested deciding sets.
No player was more affected by the heat, though, than the No. 3 seed, Novak Djokovic. The Serbian suffers from respiratory issues that are significantly magnified by above-average heat, and he clearly struggled from point to point while heaving belabored breaths. He eked out the first set, but without his speed and agility — his greatest weapons — he lost the next two. His opponent Viktor Troicki, meanwhile, was serving better than he ever has and showed no signs of faltering. Facing what would have been a truly shocking upset, Djokovic started to look panicked. Despite his significantly higher ranking and skill set, very few people watching honestly believed he could endure the necessary five sets to overcome the deficit.
If it weren’t for some heavenly cloud cover late in the match, he might not have. The shade reinvigorated Djokovic, who began hitting blistering groundstrokes while moving better. Troicki, for his part, tightened up at the end of the fourth and wilted under Djokovic’s attack in the fifth. In the end, Djokovic won just one point more than his opponent, and the utter relief of scraping by in such a close fight was evident in his elated expression.
There are mixed interpretations of Djokovic’s hard-fought victory. Although the No. 3 seed, Djokovic was never considered a serious contender here because of a perceived apathy in the face of a tough fight. He also has a tendency to withdraw from difficult matches with a variety of maladies, drawing his fair share of criticism. Thus, his admirable resurgence yesterday is viewed by some as a crucial hurdle he needed to overcome, as a way to finally expunge the doubts about his mental determination and once again become relevant in the Slam conversation. It’s possible that a first-round loss at a Slam where he’s made the semifinals the past two years was just too embarrassing to stomach. Not all matches will have that same urgency, but they might feature unbearable heat and humidity. Djokovic’s fate as a contender may rest on the New York forecast.