Scalding heat and a searing opponent threatened to expose vulnerability in Novak Djokovic.
Raw desire and a sudden splash helped Djokovic survive blistering conditions and a dangerous Marton Fucsovics.
Djokovic reeled off 10 consecutive games subduing Fucsovics, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-0, in a sometime brutal battle that sent him into the US Open second round.
It was Djokovic’s seventh straight win and first US Open triumph since he defeated Gael Monfils in the 2016 semifinals.
The sixth-ranked Serbian, who missed Flushing Meadows and the first major of his career last year, has now won 16 of his last 17 matches, including sweeping Roger Federer to win his first Cincinnati title.
On a day in which temperatures soared to the mid 90s, fans sought solace in the spray of fountains outside Arthur Ashe Stadium, parking lot attendants were armed with spray bottles while players, saturated in sweat, draped ice towels around their necks during changeovers to combat the swelter.
“I could feel it, especially in the first two-and-a-half sets,” Djokovic said afterward. “Toward the end of the third we started playing a bit better. Before that it was survival mode. Credit Marton for fighting well.”
A depleted Djokovic took a medical time-out for an apparent upset stomach and looked dazed at times dropping the second set and falling into a 2-4 hole in the third.
Extreme heat evoked extreme measures.
For the first time in US Open history, the tournament instituted a 10-minute break between the third and fourth sets.
Under the rule, both Djokovic and Fucsovics left the court then made a splash as ice-bath buddies before returning to play the fourth set.
“I want to thank the US Open for allowing us to have a 10 minute break,” Djokovic told ESPN’s Darren Cahill afterward. “I think we both needed it. But the rule was we were not allowed to speak to our team members in the locker room, so my physio was a few feet away.
“And Marton and I were taking two ice baths, naked in the ice baths. [You’re] battling with a guy for two-and-a-half hours and youre naked with the guy in the ice bath. It was a magnificent feeling I must say.”
It was a gritty comeback for the Wimbledon champion.
After Fucsovics held for a 3-2 second-set lead a seething Djokovic wound up and tomahawked his Head racquet to the court making a contorted mess of the racquet face and incurring a code violation warning in the process.
Facing break point at 2-3, Djokovic slid his second ace down the T to erase it.
A weary double fault put Djokovic in another break-point bind. This time Djokovic sailed a backhand beyond the baseline then tugged on his baseball cap after gifting the break and a 4-2 lead to Fucsovics.
The man in black bolted a backhand down the line to confirm the break, while a dazed Djokovic took a medical vist on the changeoever.
Stripping off his sweat-soaked shirt, Djokovic took a tablet for an apparent upset stomach as staffers pushed a garbage can within reach in case the 13-time Grand Slam champion lost his lunch.
The 26-year-old Fucsovics looked fresher and fitter sealing the second set and pressuring early in the third set.
When Djokovic slapped a forehand into net, the Hungarian had the break and a 2-1 third-set lead.
Slashing his third ace down the T, Fucsovics confirmed the break in the fourth game.
Then Djokovic, who had been taking deep gulps of breath earlier in the match, began growing stronger, patiently probing the corners to drain the Hungarian’s legs and lungs.
The 41st-ranked Fucsovics, who was looking stiff-legged at that point, took a medical time out holding a 4-3 third-set lead and did not win another game.
Pouncing from an open stance, Djokovic drilled a backhand pass breaking back for 4-all. Moving with more urgency, Djokovic displayed some dynamic defensive skills fending off a smash with a lob then drawing a forehand error to take the third set with a furious fist pump.
The pair departed the court for adjoining ice baths.
Djokovic returned cool and calm surging through a shutout set to set up a second-round clash with American Tennys Sandgren, who was a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victor over Viktor Troicki.
The former world No. 1, who struggled to a 6-6 start to the season before undergoing elbow surgery, has surged to a 28-4 record since then, including claiming his 31st Masters crown in Cincinnati earlier this month.
“Wimbledon win was a huge relief, I think, more than anything else, because I just personally put a lot of expectations and pressure on myself,” Djokovic said. “I’ve usually done that in the past. I think it also taught me a lesson to be more patient, to be less hard on myself and understand that some things take time. You just have to accept that and embrace it.”