Novak Djokovic, driven by making history, will aim for his sixth Wimbledon title on Sunday declaring: “The dream keeps going.”
At this stage of my career, Grand Slams are everything and I have been very privileged to make history in the sport I truly love Novak Djokovic
The tournament favourite outsmarted swashbuckling, and crowd favourite Denis Shapovalov 7-6(3) 7-5 7-5 in 2hr.44min on Centre Court in his 41st Grand Slam semi-final.
The hugely-respected Serb played the big points better to earn a decider-date with Italian seventh seed Matteo Berrettini attempting prove winning the championship is not, in the words of legend John McEnroe, a popularity contest.
But tearful tenth seed Shapovalov, the fresh-faced, blond bomber from Canada, squandered TEN out of 11 break-point opportunities in his first major last-four appearance against one of the greatest players of all time putting on a solid rather than brilliant performance.
Djokovic, 34, said: “Wimbledon is the most special tournament in the world for me, on this court, and there is no holding back. Once you step out, particularly at the latter stages of an event I dream of winning and the dream keeps going.
“At this stage of my career, Grand Slams are everything and I have been very privileged to make history in the sport I truly love.
“Every time I hear there is something on the line that is historic it inspires me but at the same time I have to balance it and win only the next match. I am trying to take out the maximum of my own abilities each match and see what happens.
“I don’t think the scoreline says enough about the performance or the match. He was serving for the first set and was probably the better player, had many chances.
“I would like to give him a big round of applause for everything he has done today and also these two weeks. We are going to see a lot of him in the future, he is a great player.”
Duran Duran, the British pop group at their height the 1980s era of the New Romantics, sang Hungry Like a Wolf.
And it seemed Djokovic, who has revealed how he grew up in the Serbian mountains with wolves, still has a gargantuan appetite when it comes to winning tennis matches and trophies as he faced Shapovalov.
In spite of a career packed with glory and countless milestones, he still wanted to feast on a 20th major and put himself alongside Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal at the top of the all-time record number of crowns, win all four Slams in 2021 and become the first male to complete the Golden Slam in Olympic year.
And he went into his showdown against Shapovalov following a mantra which had helped him feed his hunger: NEVER take an opponent for granted, remain humble, respect your rival. And boosted by what he has described as “wolf energy”.
Shapovalov had displayed a big power game – coming out swinging with belted backhands down and across court – as he has battled his way into the last-four.
Clearly going for broke had paid off for the left-hander who saw off Britain’s two-time champion Andy Murray in the third round.
But Djokovic, the best returner in the game, provided not only a contrast in styles.
The Serb had been on cruise control since losing his only set of the tournament in the opening round against Britain’s Jack Draper, while Shapovalov had had to fight his way through a couple of five-setters.
The five-time champion also had, of course, a wealth of experience, especially at the business end of tournaments, compared to a 22-year-old up-and-comer looking to emulate compatriot Milo Raonic’s run to the 2016 final in which he lost against Murray. Also, Shapovalov had lost all of his previous six encounters with the Championship favourite who had won 15 of his 16 previous Slam semis and was looking to extend an unbeaten run on grass to 20.
Added to which Djokovic had won 23 of his last 24 major matches against southpaws. And, overall, in his glittering career, had lifted 84 Tour-level titles to his opponent’s one.
But the Canadian was undaunted as he attempted to become the third from the Land of the Maple Leaf to make a Wimbledon final, following Eugenie Bouchard as well as Raonic. He declared in the build-up how the match started ”zero-zero” for both players. It seemed that he believed anyone can beat anyone on any given day. The philosophy which clearly hints at whatever is written in the history books is by definition in the past. And Shapovalov, an All England boys’ champion in 2016, remained very much in the ‘now’ as he begun the biggest challenge of his fledging career.
Any negatives were kept at bay as he began his bid to upset the odds against his superstar opponent in impressive form.
He only gave two points away on his serve and broke Djokovic’s serve to put the first set within his grasp. His big serve, blistering backhands and ‘go-for-it’ attitude were paying dividends and the crowd were lapping it up.
But the wheels came off as he served for the lead at 5-4. The pressure appeared to get to him as he made a series of unforced errors to gift Djokovic the break.
Yet he was able to bounce back with a confident hold to take the set into a tie-break.
Errors littered the games of both players but Djokovic went in front when Shapovalov double-faulted for the first time in the match on set point.
But Shapovalov kept his head up and forced three break points for a 3-1 lead in second set. But again, he slipped up as Djokovic clawed his way back to hold. How much longer was the Canadian going to waste opportunities against the world No.1?
Djokovic found ways at the vital times to extricate himself out of trouble as Shapovalov’s mental strength appeared to weaken.
It was a similar story in the sixth game of the second when the tenth seed had two more break points, but again Djokovic played the big points better and levelled the set score at 3-3.
The floppy-haired left-hander from across the Atlantic had had SEVEN break points, only managing to convert the one which earned him his first set break.
He ploughed on, his serve a potent weapon. And he made Djokovic have to hold to prevent him levelling the match.
But errors cost Shapovalov dear again as the Serb broke him for a 6-5 lead – with his first break point and served out to double his advantage.
Shapovalov managed to obtain three more break points for a 2-0 lead in the third set, but like all the others they went west and Djokovic held.
The Serb bagged three of his own in the next game, but the Canadian saved them.
He had two more in the seventh but again the tenth seed dug himself out of a hole.
Djokovic finally broke the Canadian and sealed the victory. The ‘wolf’ was roaring.
Tim Henman, a former semi-finalist, said to the BBC: “Denis Shapovalov will take so much away from this event, being through to his first Grand Slam semi-final – and then being very competitive on the day. He had his chances in those first two sets. He wasn’t able to take them but there’s no doubt he will be back on this stage and he will go on to make finals and win Grand Slams because he’s still so young. He has a lot of weapons to his game and he can still improve that overall consistency.”
Boris Becker, a multi-champion and former Djokovic coach, said: “Big credit to Denis Shapolvalov as well – the tears at the end of the match and the performance in his first semi-final. He’s only had nine matches at Wimbledon altogether and for him to give Djokovic his toughest test so far in the tournament speaks volumes.”