Wimbledon | Djokovic muscles past Nadal
IT was the Butterfly Effect. As three cabbage whites floated around court risking life and limb with 100mph balls fizzing back and forth across the net, Novak Djokovic beat Rafa Nadal 6-4 3-6 7-6(9) 3-6 10-8 in the second longest Wimbledon semi-final lasting 5hr.17min.
And the three-time champion will face Kevin Anderson, who had to go through the longest against John Isner to seal his spot in the final on Friday.
It’s hard to pick the words. I’m just going through things. Flashbacks to the last 15 months. Everything I’ve been through. Being in the final is an incredible achievement after what I’ve been through. Novak Djokovic
A reward after winning a high-quality, brutal, toe-to-toe battle between two all-time greats in two parts with Djokovic two sets to one up on the resumption under the Centre Court roof – after starting under it the previous evening – despite clear blue skies and soaring temperatures.
Djokovic, a 12-time Grand Slam champion, has not won a major since lifting the French Open crown in 2016 to hold all four of tennis’ blue riband’ events.
The former world No.1 struggled with motivation, form and injury which combined to remove his mask of invincibility.
But moving into the All England decider for the fifth time, having lost on one to date (against Brit Andy Murray in 2013), proved the former world No.1 is back to his best.
Djokovic, 31, said: “It’s hard to pick the words. I’m just going through things. Flashbacks to the last 15 months. Everything I’ve been through. Being in the final is an incredible achievement after what I’ve been through.
“It’s special. What you live and work for. To win against the best in the world. One of the longest matches I’ve played.
“Did I sleep well after playing until 11pm the previous night? Yes, if you call it sleep. Not easy to relax and calm down after that. Back on the practice court at 10.30. Takes time to adjust to a late night and an early morning. Just so glad I was able to overcome.”
And he reserved praise for his vanquished foe, the two-time champion and current world No.1who had never lost a last-four encounter at the world’s leading tennis tournament.
Djokovic said: “It could have gone either way. Very few things separated us. I didn’t know who would win until the last points. Close.”
Former Wimbledon champion Boris Becker, ex coach to Djokovic, said: “It doesn’t get much better than this. Epic. It just came down to a point or two. Novak NEEDED it.”
The ingredients excited the taste buds. Like a cordon bleu chef preparing the most sumptuous of feasts.
The longest modern rivalry in terms of matches played between two titans of the game. Two of the greatest to step onto a tennis court. Who have both returned from long-term injury, Nadal to the top and Slam success, Djokovic, now, to his latest final.
The pair have won 29 major singles titles between them, Nadal 17, Djokovic, of course, 12.
Djokovic held just a one-win advantage over Nadal, their head-to-head standing at 26-25.
More crucially, perhaps Nadal led 9-4 in Slam meetings as each had inflicted more major victories over the other than any other player.
Who could forget an epic Australian Open final triumph for the Serb in 2012 and Nadal’s revenge in another exhausting, exhilarating five-setter at the French Open a year later.
Eleven clashes in a row between 2011 and 2013 were all in finals.
At Wimbledon they were all square. Nadal won the first in the 2007 semi-final. The second, all of seven years ago, saw Djokovic overcome the Spaniard in four sets in the decider.
For those bemoaning we would not have a repeat of the Nadal-Federer 2008 All England Club final classic, this was not a bad substitute.
It was Mr Popular v Mr Fiery. Nadal the crowd favourite. Djokovic the target of ire from the Centre Court spectators earlier in the Championships as he moaned on and off court at his treatment by them.
Djokovic had been clearly revved up by it all and the Serb was quick to show how close he is to being back to his street-fighter best at the Championships. The restoration of his once dominant aura seemed completed as he eased in front under the roof.
But Nadal, hoping to complete back-to-back French Open-Wimbledon doubles for the third time, is also a fighter, an intimidator and he got himself a break up in the second set and went on to make it a set apiece.
There was nothing between them in the third set as it went into a tiebreak.
A double fault from Djokovic at the start of it made some wonder if he was cracking. But he soon got back on track.
Djokovic’s wife Jelena looked strained watching from the guest box but her husband went 4-2 in front when Nadal volleyed into the net.
Nadal edged ahead but three set points – set up by two drop volleys and a trademark forehand – came and went.
Djokovic earned himself one and fired a return long but he took his second to make a two sets to one as play was haltered with the 11.00 curfew set by the Merton council in consideration of local residents was reached. Or, in fact, passed by four minutes.
Players were asked if they wanted the roof on or open and it was surmised Djokovic wanted the former as he had done so well prior to it.
And he got his wish as the gladiators returned to the arena at 1pm the following afternoon, pushing back the women’s final between Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber . It had been adjudged the match should continue under the conditions it started.
After royalty in the shape of the Duchesses of Sussex and Cambridge took their seats in the box put aside and butterflies floated around the court, the rivals battled out a 15-minute opening game of the fourth set. Nadal saved two break points but held on before breaking and holding for a 3-0 lead. He was the aggressor with Djokovic leaning towards passiveness.
However Djokovic re-discovered his mojo and clawed it back to 3-3 as he upped his tempo. But the Serb’s serve was broken again in the eighth game and he whacked his feet repeatedly with his racket in frustration. And Nadal served out to level the match after making a successful challenge against a line call on set point.
The final set produced more high quality play from both players.
A chink in the armour came in the eighth game when Djokovic forced a break point before Nadal held.
The very next Nadal had a couple before the Serb held.
Dokovic wobbled again in the 15th game of the set, saving two more break points before holding and forcing his first match point before Nadal held.
The almost-error free encounter produced a couple of mistakes in the 18th. They were made by 32-year-old Nadal to present Djokovic with three more match points. And this time the Serb made sure in a match neither deserved to lose.