Jul 14, 2023, 11:48 AM ET
LONDON — This was the moment. If Novak Djokovic was going to be stopped in the Wimbledon semifinals, if his much younger and harder-hitting opponent, Jannik Sinner, was going to turn things around Friday, the monumental comeback required would need to start immediately.
Djokovic knew it. Sinner knew it. The 15,000 or so Centre Court spectators knew it.
After taking the first two sets, Djokovic trailed 5-4 in the third and a flubbed forehand made the game score 15-40 as he served. Two chances for Sinner to finally break. Two chances for him to actually take a set. Djokovic hit a fault, which drew some sounds of approval from the stands. Djokovic sarcastically used his racket and the ball to applaud the noise-makers, then flashed a thumbs-up.
He can back up any such bravado. Djokovic simply does not lose at the All England Club lately. Or at any Grand Slam tournament, for that matter. So he calmly collected the next four points to claim that game, looked toward the crowd and mockingly pretended to wipe away a tear. Twenty minutes later, the match was over, and the 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (4) victory over Sinner allowed Djokovic to close in on a record-tying eighth title at Wimbledon and fifth in a row.
“The third set could have gone his way,” said Djokovic, who will meet No. 1-ranked Carlos Alcaraz for the trophy on Sunday. “It was really, really just a lot of pressure.”
Alcaraz showed off every bit of his many talents, including winning 17 of 20 points when he serve-and-volleyed, while beating No. 3-ranked Daniil Medvedev 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 on Friday to make his way to his first final at the grass-court major tournament.
While Djokovic, a 36-year-old from Serbia, is pursuing a 24th Grand Slam singles championship, Alcaraz, a 20-year-old from Spain, seeks his second after winning the US Open in September.
“What can I say? Everybody knows the legend he is,” Alcaraz said about Djokovic. “It’s going to be really, really difficult. But I will fight. … I will believe in myself, I will believe that I can beat him here.”
No one has managed to beat Djokovic at Wimbledon since 2017. And no one has managed to beat him at Centre Court since 2013.
Against Sinner, Djokovic repeatedly served himself out of potential trouble, saving all six break points he faced, to reach his ninth final at the All England Club. It’s also his 35th final at all Grand Slam tournaments, more than any other man or woman in tennis history.
As great as he is as a returner, as superb as his defense is — over and over, he would sprint and lean and stretch to get to a ball that extended a point until Sinner made a mistake — Djokovic possesses a serve that might be the part of his game he has improved the most over his career.
That showed Friday, and it has throughout this fortnight: In his half-dozen matches during the tournament, Djokovic has won 100 of his 103 service games and saved 16 of 19 break points.
“In the pressure moments, he was playing very good. Not missing,” Sinner said. “That’s him.”
The age gap between Djokovic and Sinner, 21, was the largest between Wimbledon men’s semifinalists in the Open era, which began in 1968. Djokovic would be the oldest champion at Wimbledon since professionals were first allowed to compete that year.
“I feel 36 is the new 26, I guess,” Djokovic said. “It feels good.”
Sinner is the one who hit serves at up to 132 mph and pounded one fault that clanged against the speed readout board in a corner of the arena with such force that it sounded as if he might have broken the thing. Of more concern to Sinner: It was followed by another fault in a service game he dropped to trail 2-1 in the second set.
In truth, as talented as Sinner is, he didn’t generate any more frustration for Djokovic than chair umpire Richard Haigh did.
In one game in which Djokovic would face — and erase — a break point, he argued to no avail after forfeiting a point because Haigh called him for hindrance for letting out a lengthy yell while the ball was still in play. Moments later, Haigh issued Djokovic a warning for letting the serve clock expire.
“It was a very stressful game for me to survive and to kind of storm through. It was super important,” said Djokovic, who thought the hindrance call was incorrect after seeing a replay. He said Haigh needed to “recognize the moment a little bit more” instead of issuing the time warning. “Luckily for me, I stayed calm.”
Djokovic got major title No. 22 at the Australian Open in January, and No. 23 came at the French Open in June — his Wimbledon shoes have a small “23” stamped on the side — after he got past Alcaraz in the semifinals at Roland Garros.
If Djokovic wins Sunday, he will head to the US Open in August with a chance at the first calendar-year Grand Slam by a man since Rod Laver in 1969.
With the main stadium’s retractable roof shut because of rain outdoors, the grass was slick and slippery during Djokovic vs. Sinner. Sinner slipped on the very first point; Djokovic on the third. And it kept happening to both. They repeatedly smacked the soles of their shoes with their rackets to try to remove grass and dirt that got stuck in there.
Taking on Djokovic represented a significant rise in the level of competition for Sinner. Until Friday, not only had he not faced a single seeded player, but he had gone up against opponents with these rankings: 79th, 85th, 98th and 111th.
No one in the half-century history of computerized tennis rankings — men’s and women’s — has spent more weeks at No. 1 than Djokovic, who currently is No. 2. But that number does not reflect his form at the moment.
This was Djokovic’s 46th major semifinal and Sinner’s first, and that seemed obvious at the most crucial junctures.
Sinner was quite close to reaching that stage a year ago at the All England Club: He took a two-set lead in the quarterfinals against Djokovic, who came all the way back to win in five.
That sort of work was not required on this afternoon. Djokovic never let it come to that.