LONDON: Defending champion Novak Djokovic has experienced the full gamut of moods at this year's US Open. He was clearly uncomfortable while struggling through his first-round match against Jerzy Janowicz, and exasperated when his next two opponents scratched, citing injury concerns.
But Djokovic finally got to play a second proper match on Sunday night, against Great Britain's rising hope Kyle Edmund, and came away wearing an expression that his
rivals will recognise only too well: a Cheshire Cat grin, radiating health and self-assurance. "I feel great at this moment physically," he purred, after his 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 victory. "Mentally, as well, I'm motivated."
Was Djokovic acting like a corporate boss in a downturn? Trying a little too hard to reassure jittery markets? Sceptics might point out that he still needed a visit from the trainer, midway through the third set, to manipulate his right arm and shoulder - a request he later justified with the words, "Everything was fine. I just needed a little bit of massage".
But if the bookmakers are the sporting equivalent of the stock exchange, then Djokovic's smooth and stress-free elimination of Edmund has had an impact. By the end of the match, he had reclaimed his traditional status as tournament favourite, after a wobble in the middle of last week when Andy Murray was attracting the shortest odds.
He should surely be fresher than the competition, having played only 11 matches since the end of the French Open. And even the other results now seem to be going his way, after Lucas Pouille's heroics eliminated Rafael Nadal from his path to the final.
You got the feeling that Djokovic wanted to send out a message on Sunday night, not only with his tennis but with his demeanour and his consciously upbeat comments. He must have known that Murray, the second seed, would have been watching his British team-mate.
Perhaps Djokovic also sensed an opportunity in the various doubts that have tracked him over the past couple of months: the "private issues" and the mechanical problems in his left wrist and right arm. If he could resurrect his form at this midway point of the tournament, it might represent a "gulp" moment for the rest of the field.
On the other hand, we might be overrating Edmund's value as a yardstick. "It was a strong performance from Novak," said Greg Rusedski, who is part of the Eurosport team providing exclusive live coverage of the US Open. "But the locker room won't be convinced he is operating at full capacity until they see how he goes against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in tonight's quarter-final.
"Kyle has had a great run. But you don't expect someone to play at their best when they are in that sort of position for the first time: under the lights, world No?1, full house. Kyle tried to force it a bit, because Novak was getting more balls back than he expected, and conditions at night are slower. He'll learn from that."
Edmund did seem a little overwhelmed at times on Sunday. If he struggled to line up the earth-shaking forehands that had already seen off John Isner and Richard Gasquet, this may have owed something to the relentless depth and accuracy of the balls coming at him.
Still, Edmund managed a couple of breaks of serve in the third set and has a hugely enhanced reputation. "He has announced himself to the world," said Rusedski, part of Edmund's coaching team in 2014. "He has always had the offensive game, but what I noticed in this event was an improvement in his defensive skills, particularly when digging balls out of his forehand corner.
"In British tennis, we can take pride in the way Kyle has developed with only home-grown coaches. Andy Murray and Johanna Konta might have trained in Spain but Kyle has gone from Richard Plews and John Black through Colin Beecher, James Trotman and now Ryan Jones. It's good to show that we can do it our way as well."