NEW YORK — Nobody knows better than Matteo Berrettini that winning the first set against Novak Djokovic doesn’t mean much.
But even armed with his first-hand experience in the Wimbledon final, when just a slight letdown opened the door for a Djokovic onslaught, Berrettini couldn’t stop history from repeating itself Wednesday night in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. He couldn’t stop history, period.
Berrettini, the eighth-ranked player in the world, has been little more than a traffic cone this year for Djokovic on his way to a potential calendar Grand Slam — worthy enough to be paid attention to, but easy enough to navigate around. For the third straight major, Djokovic faced a bit of trouble against the big-hitting Italian but ultimately solved him, this time winning 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.
“Best three sets I’ve played – second, third and fourth – in the tournament so far,” Djokovic said. “I think I managed to raise the level of my tennis. When I dropped the first set, I just went to a different level and I stayed there till the last point. That’s something that definitely encourages me and gives me a lot of confidence.”
The win propels Djokovic into the semifinals, where he’s just two wins away from matching a feat last accomplished by Rod Laver in 1969 of winning all four Slams in the same year and also snatching the all-time major record of 21, which is currently shared with his contemporaries Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Waiting for him in the semifinals is Alexander Zverev, the 24-year old German who came within a couple points of winning the U.S. Open a year ago and defeated Djokovic this summer in the semifinals of the Tokyo Olympics.
“Against him you prepare that you have to play the best match that you can,” Zverev said Wednesday after advancing to the semifinals with a straight sets win over South Africa’s Lloyd Harris. “You have to be perfect, otherwise you will not win. Most of the time you can’t be perfect. That’s why most of the time people lose to him.”
For 1 hour, 17 minutes, Berrettini was perfect enough with his big serve-big forehand combination to give himself a chance. After breaking at 5-5 with a scorching cross-court passing shot, Berrettini drew four unforced errors from Djokovic in a tight service game to wrap up the first set.
It was the third match in a row at this tournament and ninth time this year in the Grand Slams that Djokovic has started from behind, including when Berrettini won the first set of the Wimbledon final in a tiebreaker. But all of those matches have followed a familiar pattern, with Djokovic immediately raising the level of his game and figuring out how to break his opponent down.
“I was feeling good, playing good,” Berrettini said. “Just he has this ability – and probably that’s why he’s the best ever – just to step up his game, his level all the time. Doesn’t matter how well I play, he just plays better. He starts to return better, to serve better. Just couldn’t step up like he did. He deserved to win.”
Prior to Wednesday’s match, Djokovic called Berrettini the “hammer of tennis,” and acknowledged that if he served well it would be a difficult match. But Djokovic only needs the slightest of openings to start finding weaknesses. When those 130 mile per hour missiles stopped finding the service box with the same frequency as they did in the first set, it allowed Djokovic to go to work on Berrettini’s backhand, a shot he can only use really to neutralize rallies in hopes of eventually setting up a forehand.
Without the ability to damage Djokovic at all from the backhand wing either with his slice or his two-hander, Berrettini was playing in quicksand. And as Djokovic got more comfortable getting Berrettini’s big serves back in play — he ended up winning 40% of the points when he had to return a first serve — the match devolved quickly into a highlight reel of passing shots and flicked winners that at times made the Italian look silly. By the end, he seemed to be commanding the ball at will, if only to give him the opportunity to flex his muscles and exhort the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd into a reaction on demand.
“I know what my strengths are. I stick to them,” Djokovic said. “I’ve worked over the years to perfect my game so that my game can have literally no flaws. Every player has some weaknesses in his game. There’s always something you can improve. I want to have as complete of an all-around game as I possibly can so that when I’m playing someone I can adjust on any surface, I can come up with different styles of play, I can tactically implement the game that I need for that particular match in order to win.”
It’s likely that Djokovic’s two toughest matches are still ahead in Zverev and potentially No. 2 Daniil Medvedev in the final. To stop Djokovic in any big match, the conventional wisdom is that it’s necessary to get the lead and play from ahead.
Though it’s probably better than the alternative, winning a first set from Djokovic hasn’t proven to be particularly problematic for him. In this tournament, it means he’s just getting warmed up.
“With him, it looks like he doesn’t care,” Berrettini said. “Actually he takes energy from that set that he lost. He’s used to it. There is not a lot you can do.”
Follow Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.