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Only a select group of players has achieved the rare feat of defeating Novak Djokovic three times in a row on hard courts. If the No. 1 player in the FedEx ATP Rankings is to maintain his unbeaten (21-0) streak in 2020, he’ll need to beat one of them when he faces Roberto Bautista Agut in semi-final action on Thursday at the Western & Southern Open.

Bautista Agut defeated Djokovic in their past three hard-court meetings at 2016 Shanghai and 2019 Doha and Miami. Although the Serbian leads their ATP Head2Head series 9-3, he’s been made to work even in victory against the Spaniard. Bautista Agut has taken a set in three of Djokovic’s past four wins in their rivalry.

“His style of play is just so consistent. He doesn’t give away much at all. He doesn’t make many unforced errors. He doesn’t drop his level of tennis much at all on any surface.”

Bautista Agut didn’t lose any of his trademark resilience in his return to competition this week, rallying from a set down in his third-round win against No. 11 seed Karen Khachanov and quarter-final victory against third seed and defending champion Daniil Medvedev. The 32-year-old started off this year in top form by going undefeated (6-0) in ATP Cup action and has displayed that same form in New York.

“I’m happy. I think I have been practising hard [and] doing a lot of great things at home,” Bautista Agut said. “It’s never easy to come back and play good in the first tournament. I think I have to be patient and try to enjoy every single match I play here after six months without competing. I’m just pleased and happy to be in the semi-finals. 

“Novak is a great player. It’s true that I played really good matches against Novak, [but] he didn’t lose a match this year. He is the favourite. I will try to play my game and try to enjoy another good match against him.”

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Djokovic may have experienced déjà vu if he watched how the Spaniard’s 1-6, 6-4, 6-3 comeback against Medvedev unfolded. The Serbian found himself in a similar position last year in Miami, but Bautista Agut continued to tirelessly chase down balls and pounced on the limited opportunities presented to him, clawing his way back to a 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 triumph.

Although many people saw the match as an upset, Djokovic viewed it as a textbook example of what the Spaniard does best.

“I was winning comfortably, [up a] set, having some chances in the second set and then things turned around. But that’s what he does,” Djokovic recalled. “He slows you down. He wears you down and tries to, in a way, suffocate you on the court and wait for his chances, and then he takes it.”

Djokovic also picked up where he left off at the start of this year and powered into the semi-finals without dropping a set, tying the tournament record for most appearances (8) in the last four. He’s now two wins away from creating even more history at this event. Should he take the title on Friday, he’ll equal Rafael Nadal‘s record haul of 35 ATP Masters 1000 trophies.

The 2018 champion (d. Federer) has historically thrived in the rowdy atmosphere of New York and is embracing the new normal, finding ways to excel even without fans cheering him on.

“I do miss the crowd. Everyone does because that’s a very big part of what we do in professional tennis. But it is [what] it is, and I’m trying to make the most out of this situation and these kinds of circumstances,” Djokovic said. “I’ve had a terrific tournament, reached the semi-finals [and haven’t] dropped a set. I feel comfortable [and] I also like playing on this court right now. I’m used to it.”

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