NEW YORK -- Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray walked into Ashe Stadium expecting a marathon U.S. Open quarterfinal on Wednesday night. But only Djokovic was prepared to play into Thursday.
The two split the first two sets evenly, by games, by tiebreaker points and total points overall (87) in an exhausting 2 hours, 13 minutes.
Then the clock struck midnight early in the third set. Murray, albeit slowly, turned into the proverbial pumpkin.
Djokovic dismissed him 7-6 (1), 6-7 (1), 6-2, 6-4, taking the final two sets in 54 fewer combined minutes than the first two. Play wrapped at a tidy 1:17 a.m.
“My thoughts are just directed to sleeping right now,” Djokovic, who plays Japan’s Kei Nishikori in the semifinals Saturday, said in an on-court interview. “Or party. What do you say? Let’s party.”
Few were in the mood. Certainly not Murray. The Brit showed he still has the game to be part of tennis’ Big Four, but his stamina uncharacteristically lacked.
Djokovic and Murray have played 4-hour, 50-minute matches at the Australian Open and in the 2012 U.S. Open final. However, this one didn’t compare to those classics, because of Murray’s fade.
Murray, who had back surgery last fall, conceded stiffness in his hips and back creeping in late in the third set and muttered to himself in the fourth, “nothing in the legs.” Murray also cramped up in his first-round win last week.
“Physically, he was better than me,” Murray said of Djokovic.
Murray hasn’t reached the finals of any tournament since becoming the first British man to win Wimbledon since 1936 more than 13 months ago. His ranking sank to No. 10 this year, its lowest in nearly six years.
Currently ranked ninth, Murray hadn’t beaten a top-10 player since sweeping Djokovic in last year’s Wimbledon final until he took out 10th-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga here on Monday.
Murray came into Wednesday night’s match having lost nine straight sets to Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. So he did make progress.
“Maybe I haven’t played enough matches at that level this year,” Murray said. “I can’t practice with the best player in the world. It’s tough to practice at that intensity.”
Djokovic improved to 13-8 against Murray all time. He echoed Murray when asked what the difference was in this edition of their rivalry compared to the 2013 Wimbledon final, which Murray won in straight sets.
“I get the feeling that if I get to stay with him and work, work, and not get too loose and too frustrated with points and not allow him to get into a big lead, I feel like there is a point where I feel I have that edge,” Djokovic said. “Maybe physically. That's where I try to always focus on. It paid off tonight.”
Djokovic may have passed his toughest test of the U.S. Open in reaching his eighth straight semifinal here.
The Serb brought some structure back to the tournament after Wednesday’s biggest news regarded a commentator, Patrick McEnroe announcing his resignation after 6 1/2 years as USTA general manager of player development.
Djokovic is the only player left in the draw, man or woman, to have won a Grand Slam title this year.
His next opponent, Nishikori, needed consecutive four-hour, five-set victories Monday and Wednesday to become the first Japanese man to make a Grand Slam semifinal since 1933.
Nishikori, with five career ATP titles, and Djokovic, seeking his fifth title of the year, share little more than clothing brands.
“I’m sure the Uniqlo family will be happy,” Djokovic said of the coming semifinal.
The anticipation is a final against Federer on Monday evening in a match that may be viewed as a coin flip.
Djokovic outlasted Federer in five sets in the Wimbledon final, but Federer performed far better in two hard court warm-up tournaments in August.
Federer, 33 with two sets of twins, better be prepared to last longer than Murray. Because Djokovic appears to have plenty more left.
“I was aiming to play my best tennis in U.S. Open,” Djokovic said. “I knew that’s going to happen. I was believing it’s going to happen.”