NEW YORK — Everyone should know by now to never count out Novak Djokovic. No matter how big a deficit he faces. No matter how poorly he might be playing.
And so it made sense that Djokovic would manage to come all the way back from a two-set deficit to beat Laslo Djere 4-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-1, 6-3 in the third round of the US Open, avoiding what would have been his earliest exit there since 2006.
“Trust me,” Djokovic said, “it was nerve-racking all the way until the last shot.”
The match began under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Friday night and did not wrap up until more than 3 1/2 hours later, concluding just after 1:30 a.m.
Djokovic advanced to the fourth round, where he’ll face Croatia’s Borna Gojo.
It was Djokovic’s eighth career victory after dropping the opening two sets of a match. Before Friday, Djokovic was 1-6 at the US Open when losing the first two sets, with the lone win coming against Roger Federer in the 2011 semifinal.
Once he seized control, he held on tight and never let Djere recover. In the crucible of a fifth set, Djokovic was cool as can be, collecting 12 of the initial 14 points to leave no doubt how this would go.
“Of course, winning a match is always better than losing a match. It’s as simple as that,” Djokovic said. “I think the message is sent to the rest of the field that I’m still able to play five sets deep at night and coming from two sets down always sends a strong message to the future opponents. But at the same time, I’m not really wanting to be in this position to be honest. I prefer a straight set win.”
Djokovic, who improved to 38-11 in five-setters over his career, has won three of his men’s record 23 Grand Slam titles at Flushing Meadows and been the runner-up a half-dozen times, including in 2021. The 36-year-old from Serbia did not compete in the US Open last year because he couldn’t travel to the United States as a foreigner who is not vaccinated against COVID-19; that rule was lifted this May.
Djokovic is seeded No. 2 in New York behind Carlos Alcaraz, and pretty much everyone has been expecting the two of them to meet for the championship on Sept. 10. That would be a rematch of their riveting final at Wimbledon in July, which Alcaraz won in five sets.
That appeared as if it might be derailed by Djere, a 28-year-old who is also from Serbia and was seeded 32nd in New York.
This would have been by far the biggest victory of his career: He was trying to reach the fourth round at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time and came into Friday with an 0-6 record at majors against opponents ranked in the Top 10.
Perhaps the intimidation factor that favors Djokovic in most matchups simply wasn’t there on this cool evening — at least at the start. The countrymen have known each other for years, practicing together, spending time as Davis Cup teammates and competing on tour as a doubles pairing.
When it ended, they met at the net for a hug.
Djokovic applauded as Djere walked off the court.
“I didn’t have much options in the beginning, but in the third, I kind of lifted myself up,” Djokovic said. “Once I got the break in the third, I thought, ‘OK. I have a shot. I have a chance. I might as well go after it. … I started to read his game more than I did in the first two sets.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.