NEW YORK — Novak Djokovic would be the first to say there’s no such thing as an easy road to a Grand Slam title.
Still, when he looks around the locker room before his U.S. Open semifinal Saturday, it will be hard not to notice who’s missing.
Roger Federer is gone. Rafael Nadal never showed up. Of the four men left at Flushing Meadows, only Djokovic has won it all at any of the sport’s four majors.
That makes the Serb, who has five Grand Slam trophies and is defending champion at Flushing Meadows, the favorite heading into his semifinal against fourth-seeded David Ferrer. The winner goes against either Olympic gold medalist Andy Murray or Tomas Berdych, who meet in Saturday’s first semifinal.
“Maybe for some people, it was surprising to see Roger lose because he’s so consistent and dominant,” Djokovic said. “He’s always expected to get to at least the semifinals of every Grand Slam. This is tennis. Everybody is trying and has motivation to perform their best when they’re on the big stage.”
Djokovic advanced quietly through his first four matches at Flushing Meadows. Despite being the defending champion, he was relegated to second billing — or lower — by Andy Roddick’s retirement, rain delays and other factors. He played in the afternoon, not evening. His matches were in 10,000-seat Armstrong Stadium, not 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe.
But on Thursday, in prime time in Ashe, Djokovic gave everyone an unmistakable view of what they might have missed.
His straight-sets win over Juan Martin del Potro was Djokovic tennis at its finest — an entertaining exhibition of the Serb star’s consistently meticulous footwork, his ability to shift from defense to offense, to stay in points, and sets, that feel lost, and to slowly grind down an opponent who’s playing equally superb tennis.
He won 6-2, 7-6 (4), 6-4 and still hasn’t lost a set so far in this tournament. Yet, this three-hour-plus match was no normal straight-sets victory. It was a test — and it might have been a signal of how well the second-seeded Djokovic is playing.
“He is the favorite to win this tournament,” del Potro said “I saw him playing at a very high level for the three hours in the match, and he has intensity to win all the matches in the tournament.”
Djokovic holds an 8-5 advantage in the series against Ferrer — relatively close by Djokovic’s standards — and Ferrer is one of the true grinders in the men’s game, as he showed in his quarterfinal win in a fifth-set tiebreaker over Janko Tipsarevic.
But the match took 4 hours, 31 minutes and Ferrer was bothered by a balky toenail — no small deal for a tennis player. If anyone can recover in less than 48 hours, Ferrer probably can, but this will be a daunting challenge for the 30-year-old, who has never made a Grand Slam final.
“I will try to do my best and I will try to fight,” Ferrer said. “Of course, I will have to play my best tennis.”
If he pulls off the upset, he expects to hear from his fellow Spaniard, Nadal, who is missing the U.S. Open with a knee injury.
“Of course, Rafael is always happy when I win matches,” Ferrer said.
The opening semifinal pits third-seeded Murray, who has made four Grand Slam finals but is still in search of his first win, and sixth-seeded Berdych, who lost in the first round at both Wimbledon and the Olympics, which gave him more opportunity to focus on preparing for the hard-court season.
One thing both players have in common: Wins over Federer this summer. Murray got his in the gold-medal match at the Olympics, while Berdych advanced to the semifinals with a four-set win over the No. 1 seed on Wednesday.
Berdych also knocked Federer out in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon back in 2010, then made the final, where he fell to Nadal.
“I think I’m a different player than the years before,” Berdych said. “I would say I’m more experienced than that time.”
Berdych has a 4-2 lifetime record against Murray, of Britain, who carries his entire nation’s hopes with him every time he enters a major. Their only meeting at a Grand Slam came in 2010, when Berdych won in straight sets in the fourth round of the French Open. They have split their four matches on hard courts.
“He’s a huge, huge hitter of the ball,” Murray said of his next opponent. “Even if you want to dictate points and be aggressive, he can take that away from you because he’s such a powerful guy. You need to be smart against him. You need to use good variation and try not to give him the same ball over and over, because he likes that.”
While Murray is still looking for his breakthrough, Djokovic is trying to add the U.S. Open to his Australian Open title to start the year, which would give him as good a claim as anyone as the best player in 2012.
He entered the French Open looking to become the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to win four Grand Slam tournaments in a row. Djokovic fell to Nadal in the final, then lost to Federer in the semifinals at Wimbledon and followed that with a disappointing fourth-place finish at the Olympics. After spending 12 months ranked first, he fell to No. 2 in July.
Hardly anything to be ashamed about, but since Djokovic had gone 70-6 in 2011, including 10 tournament titles and a stretch of 43 wins in a row at one point, even a small letup looked like a step down.
Not to him, though.
“I didn’t expect myself to be unbeatable for six months, once again,” he said before the start of the tournament. “It’s very hard to repeat a year like 2011. But so far, I think I’ve had a very good 2012.”
With a chance it could still get better.