2016 U.S. Open: Novak Djokovic vs Stan Wawrinka

usofinal

The 2016 U.S. Open final pits top seed Novak Djokovic against third seed Stan Wawrinka. They meet for the 24th time overall and the 7th time at a Grand Slam. This will be their first meeting of the season.

(1) Novak Djokovic vs (3) Stan Wawrinka

The final Grand Slam of the season sees Djokovic with a chance to stake claim to his third slam title of 2016 and 13th of his career. Wawrinka will be looking for his third career slam and first since beating Djokovic in the French Open final last season. For Djokovic, it has been an odd ride to this year’s final. Perhaps nothing was more odd than his semifinal against 10th seed Gael Monfils. After the Serb ran out to a 5-0 lead in the opening set, we witnessed some old school Monfils. He basically quit playing … and amazingly, it rattled Djokovic. Monfils stood flat footed on returns and simply pushed the ball back across the net and it was Djokovic who started making errors off this supposed tactic from the Frenchman. Monfils would pull within 5-3 before Djokovic steadied and closed out the set.

Monfils continued to look at about a D+ on the effort level in set two as Djokovic roared ahead 6-3, 6-2 and took a break lead early in set three. The Serb would then start struggling to land his first serve and Monfils elevated his level for the first time as he would run off the five of the next six games to take set three at 6-3. And then it was back to effort level low as Monfils sprayed 19 unforced errors in the fourth and final set as Djokovic finished him off 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2. Djokovic definitely still had his struggles, most noticeably with his serve. He had seven double faults and allowed eleven break points. Monfils could only close on four of those. Djokovic broke the Frenchman eight times on 20 chances. There was also the question of some shoulder issues with Djokovic getting some rubdowns during the match on both shoulders.

For Wawrinka, physical health was no issue in his semifinal win over 6th seed Kei Nishikori. Wawrinka had to overcome a near perfect start from Nishikori as he dropped the opening set 6-4. Nishikori won 16 of 17 first serve points in the set and committed just three unforced errors. The Swiss looked to be in trouble as he was broken to open the second set, but battled back and then began to exert his physical play on a tiring Nishikori. It was apparent in the second set that Nishikori’s five set win over Andy Murray in the quarterfinals had taken something out of his legs. Wawrinka began finding his rhythm on his backhand and Nishikori began spewing out unforced errors with 16 for the set. Wawrinka would come up with seven big holds off of eight break chances as he edged the set 7-5 with a late break.

From there, Wawrinka looked to be in control until rain forced the closure of the roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium and turned the tide. With Wawrinka ahead 4-2, the break in the match and break from the heat and humidity seemed to energize NIshikori as he pulled even at 4-4. Wawrinka again dug deep to hold his own serve and then again secured a break to close a set as he took a two sets to one lead. The fourth set saw Nishikori continue to suffer from the Murray match as he committed 12 more unforced errors and was broken three times as the Swiss finished him off 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2. For the match, Wawrinka had Stanimal stats with 38 winners and 37 unforced errors, while Nishikori stumbled with 47 unforced errors and just 27 winners.

First Meeting of 2016

A bit surprisingly, this is the first clash between Djokovic and Wawrinka in 2016 after they played four times last year. In those meetings in 2015, the Serb took three of four, but was denied famously in the French Open final. Djokovic beat Wawrinka in five in the Australian Open semifinals and then in straights in Cincinnati and in three sets at the Paris Masters. In the four meetings, Djokovic crafted a whopping 50 break points off the Swiss’ serve with Wawrinka saving 30. Djokovic faced just half of those on his serve, saving 16 of 25 break chances against him.

That figures to be a critical area on Sunday with Wawrinka perhaps likely again to face more pressure off his serve against the best returner in the game. The Swiss may get a few more chances against Djokovic’s serve however with the Serb struggling in that area some perhaps due to the bum shoulder that has nagged him here and there. In his three completed matches this tournament, the top seed has seen 29 break chances against his serve. He saved 21 of those break points. Still, that’s close to a double digit average in those three matches. Wawrinka will have opportunities, he must cash in.

On serve, Wawrinka needs to lead with his first serve. Djokovic has done a very good job of getting on top of the Swiss’ first serve in recent meetings. It’s not a surprise that the Stanimal’s best win percentage (76) in his last four matches against the Serb with his first serve came a Roland Garros. If you look at Wawrinka’s two wins over Djokovic since 2014, his first serve win percentage was 72 percent or better. In the losses, those percentages were much lower. This figures to be a key stat.

For Djokovic, he is going to have to prove that his shoulder can hold up for what figures to be a physical contest in warm and potentially humid conditions again. Nothing this tournament suggests that it is going to be easy for the Serb, so it is on Wawrinka to make those key conversions. He has been pretty good at that in key moments this tournament, but will need to avoid frustration when he fails to convert off of multiple chances. Those times will likely come and will be key mentally on both sides.

Angles Offer Acute Help to Both

Off the ground, Wawrinka is not going to go away from his bread and butter backhand. It is the shot that helps him keep his court positioning and allows him to push his opponent back. Against Djokovic, the key is going to be his willingness to stay in the long exchanges. Early against Nishikori, he was the impatient one, but did a much better job as the match grew longer. The backhand will always be a key for Wawrinka because he needs it to craft those angles against the Serb that will allow him to win the court positioning battle. For Djokovic, he may well be keen to test the forehand of Wawrinka. The Swiss has the power to lay winners from that side with ease, but also is not as consistent from the forehand side.

Djokovic would also do well to take a page out of the last two opponents against Wawrinka and mix and match some drop shots and serve and volley tactics. Wawrinka would much prefer hitting those baseline exchanges and has at-times had issues against opponents willing to come to the net during this year’s U.S. Open. The Swiss has proven he can win at the net, but it definitely is a bit more out of his comfort zone. Djokovic seems to feed off his opponent more in regards to net play. That means this one likely will start more as a baseline basher with tactical changes to come.

Djokovic is the firm favorite here, but the feeling is that he has yet to be put into a match-up where he can be made to feel uncomfortable and perhaps pay for whatever physical ailments may be plaguing him still. Wawrinka is a guy who can put him into those spots. The career numbers don’t look impressive in this series with 19 wins for Djokovic and just four losses. However, since Wawrinka became a Grand Slam winner in 2014, he is 2-1 against Djokovic with the loss coming in five sets.

AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO

As the Serb put it, Wawrinka is a “big match” player under the guide of Magnus Norman. You don’t get any bigger than a Grand Slam final against the number one player in the world. It keeps Wawrinka again in that underdog mode where he has thrived this tournament. I think the Swiss relishes that role with the chance to prove everyone else wrong. Even with Djokovic looking a bit uneven this tournament, I don’t think too many expect Wawrinka to pull off the win on Sunday. The humidity doesn’t look like it will be a factor on Sunday after some morning rain clears out with the forecast looking pleasant with some wind by the afternoon. It should be about as good as it has been over the past two weeks, so no weather excuses and hopefully no roof closure.

For me, there are still questions about Djokovic physically from his body and physically from his game. I don’t think either player has played his best tennis to this point and that could be a scary thought for both. I think scarier for Djokovic because Wawrinka physically has held up just fine this tournament, while the Serb has seemingly had something crop up in each complete match that he has played over the past two weeks. If Wawrinka avoids getting blitzed early and can put some scoreboard pressure on Djokovic by taking an early set – this gets interesting and I think an upset can be the end result.

Prediction
Wawrinka wins in five sets

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