Djokovic and Murray advance in U.S. Open

NEW YORK — The interrogation of Novak Djokovic began with a tennis question.

Then the world’s media moved on to more pressing matters.

Like the top-ranked man’s gluten-free diet. His close friend, who’s playing pro soccer in Switzerland. And what’s in his casual wardrobe.

“I will not tell you what I sleep in,” Djokovic responded with a sly smile.

But lost in the light-hearted prying after his, 7-6 (2), 6-2, 6-2, second-round U.S. Open victory Friday over Benjamin Becker was his vulnerability despite his No. 1 seed.

The Serb finds himself at a crossroads of sorts as the first week of the tournament nears its conclusion — at least if he intends to retain his top ranking at year-end.

Djokovic, a finalist in three straight Opens and four of the past six, is not the invincible player he was in 2011.

He struggled early on Friday. And he has not played up to his own lofty standards this summer, unable to win a tournament since the Monte Carlo Masters in April.

Instead Djokovic, 26, again has been overshadowed by red-hot Rafael Nadal and maybe even defending champion Andy Murray, who beat him in last year’s five-set final.

Murray had his own struggles Friday, needing four sets to beat Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer, 7-5, 6-1, 3-6, 6-1.

Djokovic probably will have to beat one of them if he wants to claim his second Open and seventh Grand Slam title.

Despite the 2011 champion’s solid, straight-sets result Friday, he looked quite beatable early, facing two set points in the first to the tour’s 87th-ranked player.

“I found it kind of tough,” Djokovic said. “I had to work twice as hard as usual, because at the start I wasn’t finding my rhythm.

“I was kind of forcing my strokes, and it was taking a lot of energy out of me.”

Becker — who is best known for beating Andre Agassi at the 2006 Open in the legend’s final match — could have and should have taken the first set.

Djokovic appeared tentative on the court, even uncomfortable at times. And commentator John McEnroe questioned if he had lost his edge this summer during the ESPN2 broadcast.

“It was a struggle,” Djokovic admitted.

He mostly blamed the conditions, which included a swirling wind and the heat of a summer afternoon.

But then he took control.

To be fair, Djokovic often goes overlooked and under-appreciated. His game is not designed with style points in mind. It’s not as spectacular as Nadal’s, as graceful as Roger Federer’s or as tortuously entertaining as Murray’s can be.

Djokovic defends well. He sends deep returns. He serves well.

But that’s not why a majority look elsewhere for the Open favorite.

Second-seeded Nadal has been the best player on the tour this year, winning nine tournaments and compiling a 55-3 record. He has beaten Djokovic in their past two meetings, including the French Open final.

And Murray not only beat Djokovic in Arthur Ashe Stadium last summer, announcing himself as a force to be reckoned with. He since has added a Wimbledon title — again beating Djokovic in the final.

But before Djokovic begins even thinking of another final, he will have to overcome 95th-ranked Joao Sousa of Portugal in the third round.

Yes, Djokovic’s victory Friday offered him an opportunity to talk about his soccer-playing friend, Neven Markovic. About how much he misses pizza and chocolate. And about how often he wears jeans and “sports clothes.”

That’s fine in the first week of the Open. But not once he passes that.

Djokovic certainly won’t sneak up on anyone, even if he often was the afterthought mention in recent years when people spoke of tennis’ Big Three men — Federer and Nadal were the others.

Now, even with Federer’s slip, Murray has joined the discussion.

And that makes Djokovic’s path to another crown even more difficult.