In their 19th meeting but first in a Grand Slam final, Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro will do battle for the US Open title. Djokovic is seeking to draw level with Pete Sampras with 14 Grand Slam titles, which would see them tied for third place behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is only the second Grand Slam final of del Potro’s career after numerous injury setbacks, but he did win this event nine years ago. What are the keys to this contest?
1 Del Potro’s first serve percentage
Just as it would have been in his semifinal clash with Nadal had injury not forced the Spaniard to retire, maintaining a high first serve percentage will be crucial for del Potro’s hopes. Indeed, it will arguably be even more important on account of how well Djokovic returns. Thus far in New York, del Potro has been dominant behind his first serve. He has won the point 82% of the time when he has landed it. But that number drops to 57% when he hasn’t.
And against Djokovic it could be in line to fall further. The Serbian is unquestionably the best returner in the game and he will surely work del Potro over if given too many looks at second serve returns. He has already won 135 points against his opponents’ second serve this tournament, with only John Millman having won more. And concerningly for del Potro, the Serbian actually leads the tournament in points won against opponents’ first serves with 142.
Thus with the del Potro serve certain to come under a stern examination, maintaining a high first serve percentage will be essential. But the Argentine will also need to serve intelligently. Djokovic is a difficult man to ace, and though del Potro has hit an impressive 68 aces so far, trying to improve that number should not be his primary focus. Rather, extending Djokovic on the return and then finishing the point on the second or third shot should be del Potro’s target.
2 Djokovic’s break point conversion rate
As effective a returner as Djokovic is, he has struggled to convert break points with regularity all year and those struggles have continued at the US Open. He has broken an impressive 31 times so far, second only to Marin Cilic with 32 breaks of serve. But, he has only managed to convert more than 50% of his break point opportunities in one match so far, his fourth round clash with Joao Sousa when he went 5/6 on break point chances.
And in his last two matches he has been profligate indeed when up break point. He wasted 16 of the 20 break points he forced against Millman and 13 of the 17 he created in the semifinals against Nishikori. His saving grace in both matches was that he was still able to break four, whilst dropping serve just once against Millman and not at all against Nishikori. But that degree of wastefulness could be punished by del Potro.
Particularly because he is unlikely to earn as many break points against the big Argentine. Indeed, thus far del Potro has given up just ten all tournament. What may encourage Djokovic, however, is that del Potro only saved three of those ten, denying Isner on his three break point chances in their quarterfinal. Young, Verdasco, Coric and Nadal took every break point they created against the Argentine. Thus both Djokovic and del Potro have room for improvement coming into the final.
3 Backhand to backhand rallies
For Nadal attacking the del Potro backhand was a tactical error, but one that he made too often in the two sets of their semifinal contest. But for Djokovic, backhand to backhand exchanges are exactly the pattern of play he should be seeking as often as possible. For whilst del Potro defended his backhand superbly against the Nadal forehand, he will find himself with a very different problem if he gets pulled into too many cross-court exchanges with Djokovic on the backhand side.
Djokovic does not hit his backhand nearly as hard as Nadal hits his forehand, but he does generally hit it with more depth and accuracy than Nadal manages with his cross-court forehand. So rather than trying to break the del Potro backhand down, Djokovic will be able to use his backhand to keep his opponent deep and moving. As Djokovic almost certainly has more in the tank than del Potro that is a pattern of play that he will be happy to utilise for the entire match.
The same cannot be said of del Potro who must avoid this becoming a physical battle. Thus, going big whenever he has the opportunity to do so with his forehand will be essential. It is the biggest weapon in his arsenal by some distance, and if he can find it regularly not even Djokovic will be able to live with him. He must also punish anything Djokovic leaves short or central early on in the match. Imposing himself on Djokovic early mentally will be vital for his chances.
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