NEW YORK (AP) — Asked during a pre-match TV interview how his left shoulder was feeling, Novak Djokovic offered a terse reply: “I’m here. Let’s play.”
Then he walked out onto the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium with his black-and-white racket bag slung over that very shoulder and responded to spectators’ cheers by waving that very arm — as if to assure everyone he was ready to go. Once play began, the U.S. Open’s defending champion and No. 1 seed certainly did look to be just fine.
And by the end of his 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory over Denis Kudla of the United States on Friday night that put the Serb in the fourth round for the 12th consecutive appearance at Flushing Meadows, Djokovic was prepared to declare a change to his condition.
“I managed to play almost pain-free,” he said. “That’s a big improvement.”
And a big story at a tournament where two days earlier he had complained about how much that shoulder hurt after repeatedly being visited by a trainer during his previous match.
Asked at his news conference whether he had taken a pain-killing injection, Djokovic said he didn’t want to discuss any specifics.
“I did a lot of things in the last few days to be able to play,” he said.
Djokovic skipped practice Thursday to rest the troublesome joint; he is a righty but uses his left arm for his two-fisted backhands and his serve tosses.
During a warmup session before facing Kudla, Djokovic had an exchange of words with someone outside the practice court — and later implied that confrontation fired him up to play.
“I think he did me a favor,” Djokovic said. “Even maybe (if) he didn’t want to do me a favor, he did me a favor. Big favor.”
In the match, Djokovic went to his one-handed slice backhand quite a bit early on against the 111th-ranked Kudla, perhaps to shield that shoulder, but eventually he was driving his two-fisted backhand deep to win points.
Next will be a match Sunday against three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka.
Heading into that, Djokovic has won 36 of his past 37 Grand Slam matches and four of the past major championships.
He is pursuing a fourth title at the U.S. Open and 17th major trophy overall.