Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic aren’t at their best

Serena Williams has a sore right shoulder. Novak Djokovic’s problem lies on the opposite side, in his left wrist. The main question hovering over the US Open’s top singles seeds might not be which of them will win the event and bag yet another historic title but which of them will last longer.

“I’m doing everything in my power, with obviously the medical team, to make sure that I’m as close to 100 percent as possible during the course of this tournament,” defending men’s champion Djokovic said Friday at the National Tennis Center, ominously adding, “… at least for the beginning of it.”

Williams, who has played just three singles matches since she won Wimbledon, echoed Djokovic’s sentiments when she said, “I have not played a lot, I haven’t practiced a lot, but I’m just now starting to feel a little better. Hopefully just every day I will keep going higher.”

Each of the Grand Slam icons is coming off a severe disappointment at the Rio Olympic Games, with early losses for both attributed partly to their injuries. They’re trying to balance the demands of practice with those of rehabilitation. Which is the priority?

“Somehow [I’m] managing to do both,” Williams said, enigmatically. “Definitely am trying to practice more because I don’t want to go into an event without having practiced. … [And having] a lot of physical therapy.”

Williams said the last time she felt that her serve was a fully functioning weapon was at Wimbledon, where the women’s final was contested July 9. She might have relied on it too much while earning her record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title in London. But it clearly was not that familiar, lethal tool during her three matches in Rio, where she and sister Venus also saw their unbeaten Olympic doubles streak broken in the first round at 15 matches (and three gold medals).

At Rio, though, the wrist injury flared up out of nowhere just a few days before the start of singles. Ironically, Djokovic’s first-round opponent was Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro, whose own multiple wrist injuries have ruined what might otherwise have been a Hall of Fame career. Del Potro, on the comeback trail once again, eliminated Djokovic. Then Djokovic and partner Nenad Zimonjic were knocked out in the second round of the doubles.

The losses were devastating for a player who considers himself an ambassador for his native Serbia. Djokovic still has just one Olympic medal, a 2008 singles bronze he earned in Beijing. A US Open title would certainly help him overcome his Olympic disappointment, but Djokovic, like Williams, is in a race against time.

“I’m just hoping that Monday, when the tournament starts, I’ll be able to get as close to the maximum of executing my backhand shot as possible,” Djokovic said, referring to the shot most affected by his injury. “Sometimes what you need as an athlete is time, but, because the US Open is around the corner, I don’t have too much time.”

If he needs cheering up, he might try lobbing in a call to Williams. She left Flushing Meadows in a depressed daze last year after she was upset in the semifinals by heavy underdog Roberta Vinci. The loss killed Williams’ quest to earn a historic calendar-year Grand Slam just two matches shy of the goal.

That match has vanished in Williams’ rearview mirror. She said Friday that she’s very happy to be back at the National Tennis Center, where she’s had so many “wonderful memories and moments.” She has likewise relegated her recent Olympic failures to her trash file.

“At the end of the day, I knew I gave the best effort I could [in Rio], and it just wasn’t enough,” she said. “I just practiced two days before playing my match. It’s not ideal, but it was all I could do. So, you know, I’m starting to feel better now, and that’s really positive.”

 

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