Under The Flushing Moon

Photo courtesy of moi

“Ladies and gentlemen, due to the humid conditions, Millman is going to change his attire.”

In the middle of the second set on during the men’s quarterfinal at the US Open on Wednesday night, with his opponent, Novak Djokovic, up a set already, unseeded John Millman took a precautionary measure with regard to his attire. He was sweating through his shirt, his shorts and maybe his shoes and hat, and he wasn’t going to stand for it anymore. For all intents and purposes, it’s been the story of the tournament in Flushing Meadows: the heat is just too damn hot.

The weather is a clichéd topic, one befitting casual acquaintances at a party while waiting for someone better to arrive, anyone who rides public transit at any time and Al Roker. At best, it should merely be tertiary fare for the final Grand Slam of the year. Yet, it has defined many of the matches so far, including Millman’s shocking, four-set upset of Roger Federer in the round of 16. Mother Nature would not sway Novak Djokovic so easily.

Even with roofs now installed on two courts, the main Arthur Ashe Stadium and the defacto 1B, a new and improved Louis Armstrong, the heat has been nothing short of oppressive for everybody. The first victim was French player Alizé Cornet, who, after taking the ten-minute heat break the tournament has instituted in light of conditions during her opening round match against Johanna Larsson, found that she had put her shirt on backward upon returning to the court and reversed it, prompting a code violation.

The Open retracted the violation and issued an apology the following day, but for a sport already dealing with the implications of Serena Williams’ absurd catsuit ban at the French Open, it wasn’t a particularly inspiring series of events. At the heart of it all, of course, has been the heat, with indexes regularly pushing past 100 and everybody diving for the limited shade available throughout Billie Jean King Tennis Center.

Wednesday’s match was no different, and after besting Millman in a relatively elementary first set, 6-3, Djokovic showed signs of wearing early in the second. The heat was certainly a factor; after only a few points, both players were noticeably, and profusely, sweating. Every game seemed like an exercise in attrition, with long, repetitive rallies relying on the players not moving terribly far comprising many of the early points. I was in jeans, which was not the smartest decision I made that day.

Always passionate for an underdog, and despite the swathes of Nole-heads dispersed throughout the stadium, the New York crowd took to favoring Millman, holding its breath when he held serve to begin the second set. When Djokovic took to over-utilizing his drop shot, Millman pounced, delighting the fans, many of whom likely thought they’d be seeing Novak play Federer in a would-be quarterfinal for the ages[1]. Alas, Millman had other ideas.

But then, his strong second started to crumble. Though it was only 2-2 when the Australian asked to change, Djokovic’s place as the heavy favorite was solidified. Having only dropped two sets all tournament coming in[2], and riding the momentum of his excellent first set, he took Millman’s requested break to sit, shirtless, in his chair and relax.

It seemed like exactly the kind of idiosyncratic action we’ve all come to expect from the Serbian and one which certainly endeared him to what has, historically and depending on the opponent, been a tough one for him to wrangle to his corner. In 2015, for instance, Djokovic looked visibly distraught at the audience for applauding Federer and imploring them to enjoy his tennis as well. Granted, that was against Roger Federer, whose crowd appeal has always been prominent and only grows with age, but Djokovic is, or has been, a known antagonist in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Nevertheless, when Millman returned, so did Novak’s focus. Perhaps it was the cooling wind of the evening, or maybe the dude just wanted to get home quickly and knew he could if he got himself together. Though John Millman kept battling, and the two shared a wonderful third set which re-ignited a thinning crowd, it was Djokovic who prevailed, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.

Now, he advances to the semifinal of a tournament he has twice one previously. His opponent, Kei Nishikori, has defeated Djokovic at this very tournament in their only previous US Open meeting, in 2014, though it is one of only two times he has done so in nine meetings. In their most recent, Djokovic prevailed in four sets at Wimbledon on his way to the title.

Nishikori is an interesting case because he has a history of doing well at the US Open; it’s likely his best tournament, having reached the final in 2014 and two semis in the past three years. Perhaps he will find inspiration in fellow countrywoman Naomi Osaka, who, in defeating Madison Keys Thursday night, became the first Japanese woman ever to reach a Grand Slam final. Naturally, awaiting her is 23-time major champion and mother of one Serena Williams, who is currently looking to match Pentecostal minister and LGBTQ+ opponent Margaret Court’s record of 24 singles titles[3].

Still, Djokovic has looked impenetrable, and certainly was so on Wednesday night. If he turns in a performance full of that kind of fire and fury, backed my man and God and the natural implications of both inherent to whatever weather he receives, roof or no roof, against Nishikori, he may very well end up in the US Open final yet again. There, it will be he, and not Mother Nature, who has the final say.

*     *     *

[1] To his credit, Millman had many of his own fans in attendance as well, including two Australian gentlemen who, I found out on the subway afterward, had flown 24 hours straight from that mainland to this one.

[2] One, to Márton Fucsovics in the first round; the other, to Tennys Sandgren in a tiebreak in the second round.

[3] Though, only 11 of those came in the Open Era, essentially making her a prejudiced Björn Borg.

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