NEW YORK (AP) –– Novak Djokovic sat in his sideline chair and winced while his right shoulder was massaged and manipulated by a trainer.
Moments later, the top-ranked Djokovic resumed hitting slower-than-usual serves, slapping weak forehands into the net and falling further behind against Andy Murray. On the U.S. television broadcast, former No. 1 Jim Courier was asked by another announcer whether seeing Djokovic struggle so much changed his view that the Serb should be seen as the favorite to win the year’s last Grand Slam tournament, which starts Monday.
“Not even remotely,” Courier replied. “Not a scratch on the surface.”
Yes, given how great – nearly perfect, actually – Djokovic’s 2011 has been so far, plenty of people still figure he’s the man to beat at the U.S. Open. Even with that tired and bothersome shoulder that eventually led him to quit during the final of the Cincinnati Masters last weekend.
That went into the books as only Djokovic’s second loss in 59 matches during a marvelous season that featured a 41-match winning streak and nine titles, including Wimbledon and the Australian Open.
“I mean, it’s kind of expected. I’ve played so many matches this year. I mean, I’ve been winning, you know, a lot and reaching the final stages of each event,” Djokovic said. “Considering the schedule that is very busy in tennis, it’s kind of normal to expect that at some stage you are exhausted.”
Considering all the ailments and assorted other issues that have hampered so many top tennis players lately, it probably would be appropriate if Djokovic is somewhat less than 100 percent fit. Even if his assessment was: “I am confident that I can recover and be ready.”
Run down a list of the sport’s stars a day before Thursday’s draw in New York, and most have been bothered by something:
• Rafael Nadal, the defending champion, has blisters on his left foot and tender fingers that he burned by touching a hot ceramic plate at a restaurant, of all things. Aside from that, there is his 0-5 record against Djokovic this year, all in finals, and upset losses at Montreal and Cincinnati.
“Sometimes you are playing well; sometimes you are playing worse,” Nadal said. “I am playing a little bit worse now than well.”
• Roger Federer, who counts five U.S. Open titles among his record 16 Grand Slam trophies, also exited relatively early at those two key hard-court tuneup tournaments. Now he is facing the real possibility of ending his streak of winning at least one major championship eight years in a row. He also turned 30 on Aug. 8, and the last man to win a Grand Slam title after that milestone birthday was Andre Agassi at the 2003 Australian Open.
• Serena Williams cited swelling in her right big toe while pulling out of the Cincinnati hard-court tournament, a far-less-worrisome problem than Djokovic’s. Williams — who leads active women with 13 Grand Slam singles titles, including three in New York — is a popular pick in the women’s field, even though she’s seeded only 28th after missing nearly a full year with a series of health scares.
• The top-seeded woman, Caroline Wozniacki, is apparently healthy, but she is dealing with inconsistent play, losing her first two summer hard-court matches, including one against 19-year-old Christina McHale of New Jersey.
Then again, at least they’re all planning to play at Flushing Meadows.
Kim Clijsters, whose three U.S. Open titles include 2009 and 2010, pulled out of the tournament because of a stomach muscle injury. And 2001 champion Lleyton Hewitt withdrew, too.
At the Cincinnati Masters — where No. 2-ranked Nadal and No. 3 Federer both lost in the quarterfinals, before Djokovic bowed out in the final — No. 4 Murray was asked whether all of that might bode well for his chances for a first Grand Slam title in New York.
“I’m sure come the start of the U.S. Open next Monday, all of them will be fine,” Murray said. “I think each one of them will be playing great tennis, much better than they have played here.”
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