Novak Djokovic rises and falls in the affections of New Yorkers as fast as an Andy Roddick ace zips through the court. Two years ago, on his way to the final, the Serb delighted the crowd with his impersonations of other players. Twelve months later he was booed out of the stadium after beating Roddick, having taken exception to the American's tongue-in-cheek comments about his ailments and injuries.
On Monday night the world No 4 found himself back in favour at Flushing Meadows. Having brushed aside Radek Stepanek, winning 6-1, 6-3, 6-3 to book a place in the last eight, Djokovic was invited during an on-court interview to impersonate John McEnroe, who was watching from a television commentary box.
Reluctant at first, Djokovic proceeded to bark McEnroe-fashion at a ballboy: "Give me some balls! Give me some balls!" He then hoisted up his shorts and did a perfect imitation of McEnroe's serve, slammed his racket to the ground, pointed to where he claimed the ball had landed and screamed at an imaginary umpire: "You cannot be serious!"
The crowd loved it and enjoyed it even more when 50-year-old McEnroe came on court, dressed in trousers and a long-sleeved white shirt, to play three points against him. The New Yorker, who won the title here on four occasions, got his own back by bouncing the ball dozens of time, Djokovic-style, before serving. When McEnroe hit a winning volley, the Serb bowed in mock reverence.
"I like to entertain the crowd," Djokovic said later. "That makes me happy as well. Playing with Johnny Mac and having fun, I think that's what the crowd want, and especially at this hour. These night matches make this tournament very special."
Djokovic has never quite rescaled the peaks he climbed during a five-month spell beginning with the US Open here two years ago, when he reached the final before losing to Roger Federer. He won the next Grand Slam tournament, beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final of the Australian Open, but has not made a major final since then. Earlier this year he was overtaken by Andy Murray in the world rankings.
If he laboured to victory over the lowly American, Jesse Witten, in the previous round, Djokovic had no such problems against Stepanek. The match was over inside two hours as Djokovic pulled the Czech from side to side with some beautifully constructed points. Two years ago Stepanek detained Djokovic for more than four and a half hours here before the Serb won their second-round match.
Djokovic now plays Fernando Verdasco, the No 10 seed. "I think Fernando's been playing the tennis of his life." Djokovic said. "He reached the semis of the Australian Open and he is physically much stronger. He is fit and believes he can beat the other top players. But I think overall I played really well today.
Verdasco, who knocked Murray out of the Australian Open earlier this year before losing a five-hour thriller against Nadal, booked his place in the last eight with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory over John Isner. The winner of the Verdasco-Djokovic match will play Federer or Robin Soderling, who meet for the third Grand Slam tournament in succession, the Swiss having won in the French Open final and in the fourth round at Wimbledon. Federer eased into the quarter-finals on Monday with a straight-sets victory over Tommy Robredo.
The defeat of Isner, who had knocked out his fellow American, Roddick, in the previous round, means that the host nation does not have a man in the quarter-finals here for the first time in the tournament's history.
The organisers and the American media have been hugely indebted to a 17-year-old from Marietta, Georgia for keeping the US Open high on the sporting agenda. Melanie Oudin has been the story of the tournament so far and is through to the quarter-finals after beating a fourth Russian in succession. The world No 70 reached the last eight of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time by beating Nadia Petrova 1-6, 7-6, 6-3.
"It's really a great feeling," Oudin said of the raucous support she was given in Arthur Ashe Stadium. "Everyone stood up when I had my first match point. Just when I won the second set, a standing ovation. It's crazy how many people are cheering for me and supporting me."
Laura Robson, who beat Oudin on her way to the Wimbledon junior title last year, went through to the third round of the girls' event here yesterday when she came from behind to beat the American, Lauren Embree. Robson lost the first set and was 4-1 down in the third but recovered to win 6-4, 1-6, 6-4.