NEW YORK -- At first, it seemed like the problem was those ferocious backhand blasts aimed toward him by fellow Grand Slam champ Stan Wawrinka. A little later, it appeared that perhaps the lack of support from the restive night crowd on Arthur Ashe Stadium had gotten under his skin. Then it looked as if defending US Open champion Novak Djokovic -- the most resolute of defenders and the master of the 25-shot rally -- was running out of steam on this humid evening.
It wasn't until Djokovic sat shirtless during the changeover after he dropped the second set, a trainer kneading his left shoulder, that the main source of the top seed's curiously indifferent play became manifest. The shoulder that had been bothering Djokovic for weeks was growing more painful by the moment. Three games into the third set, with Wawrinka about to serve, Djokovic marched up to the net to tell his opponent that he was retiring. The two men, friends for years, embraced and exchanged a few words. Djokovic's US Open lay in ruins.
Wawrinka advanced to the quarterfinals, where he will meet Daniil Medvedev, taking the win in 1 hour, 46 minutes, 6-4, 7-5, 2-1 (retired).
Wawrinka now has a clearer path to a meeting with fellow Swiss player Roger Federer. Djokovic's exit also greatly enhances Federer's chances to win his first US Open title after a drought of a decade. For his part, Federer next has to win his quarterfinal match against Grigor Dimitrov.
"I congratulate Stan," Djokovic said afterward. "He's a great player. I really wish him all the best the rest of the tournament." The three-time champion tersely added, "I don't want to talk about my injuries. I said that in the past. I'm sticking to that."
Later, when asked how he knew when to draw the line and throw in the towel, Djokovic elaborated: "It's hard to say when you don't know what you feel anymore, to be honest. The pain was constant for weeks now. Some days higher, some days with less intensity, and obviously [I've been] taking different stuff to kill the pain instantly. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't."
This unfortunate turn was prefigured during Djokovic's second-round match, when he received treatment for his shoulder on court during his win over Juan Ignacio Londero. Some doubted the severity of the injury at that time, but retiring from a Grand Slam fourth-round match still seems a steep price to pay for credibility.
Djokovic's admission that he was taking painkillers, and of the internal conflict he experienced trying to decide whether to go on, probably explain the distracted state he was in for much of the time after he lost the first set. The crowd, enthusiastically pulling for Wawrinka, clearly wasn't going to inspire him to transcend his pain and anxiety.
"I don't really pay too much attention on that," Djokovic said of both the earlier criticism and the crowd's support for his opponent. "I like to respect others. I hope that others can respect me and my decision [to retire]."
It didn't seem fair that Djokovic left Arthur Ashe Stadium for the final time in 2019 under a shower of boos and jeers, given how many electric moments he has produced for the night crowd in Gotham over the years. But the fans were stoked by the almost malevolent force of Wawrinka's game. Even a healthy, in-form Djokovic might have found the right-hander's game too hot to handle.
Wawrinka clouted 17 winners compared to the 15 Djokovic produced (most of those in the early going). The 34-year-old made just 19 unforced errors (to Djokovic's 35), a startlingly low number given the roundhouse cuts he took at every opportunity. His one-handed backhand was devastating, amply demonstrating why Wawrinka and Juan Martin del Potro (currently out with injury) are the two most consistently dangerous rivals for the Big Three.
Djokovic held a 19-5 advantage in his series with Wawrinka coming into the match but just a 4-3 advantage in best-of-five Grand Slam matches. Furthermore, Wawrinka, who is 0-17 in best-of-three-set meetings with No. 1 players, has won both of their meetings in major finals. Only Rafael Nadal and Boris Becker have logged more wins over world No. 1 players at Grand Slams (Wawrinka has four). Wawrinka's explanation for his prowess in the four greatest tournaments is simple. As he said after this truncated match: "I love those Grand Slams. ... That's where I am most confident."
Djokovic also loves those Grand Slams, having won 16 of them (to Wawrinka's three). He trails Federer by four titles and Nadal by two in the chase for the record. Earlier in the tournament, Djokovic declared his intention to catch and surpass both those men. "It's still a very long way ahead of me," he said. "It does also put a certain level of responsibility to me as well because I am aiming to do that. You know, it's definitely one of my ambitions and goals."
Until this match, it seemed that Djokovic was well on his way to whittling the lead of the twin icons. He crushed Nadal in the Australian Open final. Dominic Thiem surprised him on a raw, windy day in the Paris semifinals, but then Djokovic played a match for the ages, rebounding from down two match points to overcome Federer in the first Wimbledon final decided by a fifth-set tiebreaker. This loss, if that's the right word for it, is a precious opportunity gone to waste.
Djokovic reiterated his commitment to challenging the all-time singles title record before he left the Open, albeit in a more muted tone. "Of course, [I have the] desire and a goal to reach Roger's record. But it's a long road ahead for me. I hope I can play for many more years. I'm planning to. I mean, I don't see an end behind the corner at all."
Djokovic left Ashe with his head bowed, greeting the boos of the crowd with a thumbs-up. It wasn't a taunt. He understood their discontent and empathized, even though they spurned him.
"I'm sorry [for them]," he said. "Obviously they came to see a full match, and it just wasn't to be. That's all it is. I mean, a lot of people didn't know what's happening, so you cannot blame them. It is what it is."