Djokovic tops del Potro for third US Open; Serena falters

NEW YORK (AP) — The U.S. Open final suddenly appeared to be slipping away from Novak Djokovic. He dropped three consecutive games. He was angered by a crowd roaring for his popular opponent, Juan Martin del Potro. He was, in short, out of sorts.

And then came Sunday’s pivotal game, a 20-minute, 22-point epic. Three times, del Potro was a point from breaking and earning the right to serve to make it a set apiece. Three times, Djokovic steeled himself. Eventually, he seized that game — and del Potro’s best chance to make a match of it.

A year after missing the U.S. Open because of an injured right elbow that would require surgery, Djokovic showed that he is unquestionably back at his best and back at the top of tennis. His returns and defense-to-offense skills as impeccable as ever, Djokovic collected his 14th Grand Slam title and second in a row by getting through every crucial moment for a 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-3 victory over 2009 champion del Potro at Flushing Meadows.

Djokovic was better than del Potro on their many lengthy exchanges, using his trademark body-twisting, limb-splaying court coverage to get to nearly every ball, sneakers squeaking around the blue court in Arthur Ashe Stadium, where the roof was closed because of rain.

This was Djokovic’s third championship in New York, along with those in 2011 and 2015. Add in the trophies he has earned at six Australian Opens, one French Open and four Wimbledons, most recently in July, and the 31-year-old Serb pulled even with Pete Sampras for the third-most majors among men, trailing only Roger Federer’s 20 and Rafael Nadal’s 17.

Del Potro spoke this week about the low point, in 2015, when he considered quitting the sport. But supported by a dozen or so friends from back home, whose “Ole!” choruses rang around the arena, he climbed up the rankings to a career-high No. 3 by thundering his 100 mph (160 kph) forehands and 135 mph (215 kph) serves.

Those produce free points against so many foes. Not against Djokovic, who always seemed to have all the answers.

Women

NEW YORK (AP) — The events and the arguing and the booing that would make this a U.S. Open final unlike any other began when Serena Williams’ coach made what she insisted was an innocent thumbs-up, but the chair umpire interpreted as a helpful signal.

It was the second game of the second set Saturday, in a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium, and Williams’ bid for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title already was in real trouble because she was being outplayed by first-time major finalist Naomi Osaka.

Chair umpire Carlos Ramos warned Williams for getting coaching during a match, which isn’t allowed. She briefly disputed that ruling, saying cheating “is the one thing I’ve never done, ever.” A few games later, Williams received another warning, this time for smashing her racket, and that second violation cost her a point, leading to more arguing. Eventually, Willams called Ramos “a thief,” drawing a third violation — and costing her a game.

“I have never cheated in my life!” Williams told Ramos. “You owe me an apology.”

Soon, Osaka was finishing off a 6-2, 6-4 victory that made her the first player from Japan to win a Grand Slam singles title. That is not, however, what will be remembered about this chaotic evening.

With jeers bouncing off the arena’s closed roof, both players — the champion, Osaka, and the runner-up, Williams — wiped away tears during a trophy ceremony that was awkward for everyone involved.

“I just feel like I had a lot of emotions,” Osaka said. “I had to kind of categorize what was which emotion.”

What was most problematic for Williams on the scoreboard was that she was unable to keep up with a version of herself. Osaka, who happens to be coached by Williams’ former hitting partner, hit more aces, 6-3. Osaka hit the match’s fastest serve, 119 mph. She had fewer errors, 21-14. She saved five of six break points. And she covered the court better than Williams did.

“She made a lot of shots,” Williams said. “She was so focused.”

Indeed, that was what might have been most impressive. Osaka never let Williams’ back-and-forth with Ramos distract her, never wavered from playing terrific tennis. The one time Osaka did get broken, to trail 3-1 in the second set, she broke back immediately, prompting Williams to smash her racket.