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Think Outside The Box

Djokovic deals with arm issue to get over Busta

Novak Djokovic overcame a bothersome left arm and an early deficit to reach the French Open semifinals for the 10th time.

The top-seeded Djokovic kept flexing and stretching that arm and got off to a slow start on Wednesday night before he received massages from a trainer, righted himself and beat No. 17 seed Pablo Carreño Busta 4-6 6-2 6-3 6-4 to move closer to a second championship at Roland Garros and 18th Grand Slam trophy.

This was a rematch from the US Open last month, when Djokovic was defaulted for inadvertently hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball he smacked in anger. That went into the books as a loss and remains the only blemish on Djokovic’s 36-1 record in 2020.

Djokovic certainly seems to have moved past that episode, winning all 10 matches he’s played since.

He hadn’t even ceded a set at Roland Garros this year until Wednesday, when he was troubled physically at the outset. Djokovic showed up for the match with a bandage on the back of his neck, then made clear from the get-go there was something wrong with his left arm.

He is right-handed, but the left side is important, too. He uses it for his two-fisted backhand and to throw the ball in the air on serves. Whatever impediment there was to his play, whatever the pain level might have been, the issue was, at the very least, a distraction.

Djokovic will meet No. 5 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in one of Friday’s semifinals. No. 2 Rafael Nadal faces No. 12 Diego Schwartzman in the other.

Nadal is seeking a 13th title in Paris and 20th major championship overall, which would equal Roger Federer’s record for men. Schwartzman never has played in a major semifinal.

In the women’s semifinals on Thursday, it’ll be No. 4 Sofia Kenin vs. No. 7 Petra Kvitova, and 54th-ranked Iga Swiatek vs. 131st-ranked Nadia Podoroska, the first female qualifier to get this far at the French Open.

Tsitsipas reached his first French Open semifinal with a 7-5 6-2 6-3 victory over 13th-seeded Andrey Rublev, taking control after trailing in the first set with a run of five consecutive games, and 11 of 13.

At the US Open, Tsitsipas failed to convert a half-dozen match points in a third-round loss. Then, against Rublev in the final of the clay-court Hamburg Open on September 27, which also was Day 1 of the French Open, Tsitsipas served for the victory and again could not close it out, absorbing another disheartening defeat.

Two days after that, in Paris, Tsitsipas lost the initial two sets of his first-round match against 109th-ranked Jaume Munar. But he hasn’t lost a set since.

“I’m chasing something spectacular,” said the 22-year-old from Greece.

The first obvious sign of trouble for Djokovic came when the 33-year-old from Serbia stepped out into Court Philippe Chatrier with a rather large square of beige athletic tape on the back of his neck, a patch that began to curl at the top and peel away late in the first set. He later removed it entirely.

The next indication came on the match’s very first point, when Djokovic let his ball toss drop and abandoned the serve mid-motion.

Between points, he manipulated his left arm. At changeovers, he rubbed it. He hit himself in the crook of that arm and the lower part of his biceps, pounding repeatedly with the heel of his right hand. He leaned back against the corner of his sideline seat to push his left triceps into it.

Demonstrative as ever, he smacked himself on his thighs with his racket or hung his head or leaned over with hands on knees after missed shots — and there were plenty of misses. The drop shots so successful for Djokovic all tournament were off-target. Getting serves in was difficult. He was hesitant with groundstrokes.

In the opening set, Djokovic accumulated a whopping 16 unforced errors — accounting for nearly half of Carreño Busta’s 33 points.

At the changeover before the second set, Djokovic was attended to by a trainer, who returned for another massage three games later.

Maybe that did the trick, because from then on, Djokovic was a different player.

His drop shots functioned properly. He was at his customary best during lengthy baseline exchanges. He had twice as many winners as unforced errors in the second set. He took nine of 11 games to make it a set apiece and 3-0 in the third. While he gave back that break, another three-game run gave him the set.