Jannik Sinner gets harsh reminder of Novak Djokovic’s immortal talent | Wimbledon 2023

new balance

As Jannik Sinner walked to the net to shake hands with Novak Djokovic here on Friday, the young Italian allowed himself a little shake of the head. If you’re going to have a sniff of beating one of the all-time greats, you have to take your chances, however fleeting they may be. But like so many who have gone before him, Sinner was reminded that for all the talk of a new generation ready to take over the men’s game, the king is still holding on to his crown.

It is 10 years since Djokovic last lost on Centre Court, to Andy Murray on that remarkable July day. Since then, Britain has had four more prime ministers while Djokovic has won here six more times, sweeping all before him and chewing off a bit of the hallowed Centre Court grass each time. If Sinner wasn’t quite chewed up, he was left wondering what might have been.

Despite an age gap of just over 14 years, there are a lot of similarities between them. Here are two men who grew up with skiing in their blood: Djokovic the son of parents who ran a pizza restaurant on the slopes of the Kopaonik mountains; Sinner, a national under-12 skiing champion, who can be seen on YouTube showing off his skills alongside Lindsey Vonn, the American former Olympic champion. That muscle memory enables both of them to slide on grass as if it was a clay court and they traded blows from the baseline on Friday, searching for a chink in the other’s armour. Each man created chances, only one took them.

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At Roland Garros last month, where the Serb won his men’s record 23rd grand slam title, his coach, the 2001 Wimbledon champion, Goran Ivanisevic, said that what separates Djokovic from the rest – at least now that Roger Federer has retired and Rafael Nadal is out through injury – is his ability to produce his best, on the biggest stages, when it matters most.

In Paris, Djokovic also found an inner calm amid the stress of the big occasion, something that has not always been the case. That serenity has carried over here, the 36-year-old cutting a relaxed figure from the off, laughing and joking during a rain delay in his opening match and even teasing the younger generation with his “it ain’t happening yet” comment after his quarter-final win, when asked about the younger players trying to take his scalp.

Sometimes, the second seed’s emotions can boil over, his roar becoming louder as things get tight. But on Friday, he was again under control, right from the start. Perhaps, at his age, he knows that he can’t waste unnecessary energy against the pretenders to his throne, that any games dropped when his focus slips could be costly in the long run. Perhaps his confidence level is just so high, after winning the first two slams of the year for the third time in his career.

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Jannik Sinner waves to the crowd as he departs the court
Jannik Sinner was swept away by Djokovic in straight sets. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

He was tested, both by the eighth seed and the umpire, Richard Haigh, who at 1-2 in the second set, controversially called a point against him for “hindrance” after he had let out a long grunt following a big backhand down the line that he must have thought was going for a winner only for Sinner to race across and get the ball back into play.

On another day, that might have set Djokovic off; this time, he simply had a word with the umpire, accepted the decision – even if he clearly disagreed with it – and went back to his business. And even when he received a warning for taking too much time in the same game, he steadied himself, held serve and carried on.

You would be hard pressed to know whether Sinner was winning or losing from the look on his face. From the South Tyrol region, he’s more Germanic in his nature on court than he is Italian. Even his fist pumps towards his team, after almost every point he won, have a calmness about them and the most excitable he gets is when he occasionally waves his arms to the crowd to get them going. Fast around the court with brilliant ground strokes, he has the game to win here one year. Just not this one.

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Sinner had led Djokovic by two sets to love in the quarter-finals here last year before going down in five. And though he began with intent, so did Djokovic, just as he did against Carlos Alcaraz in the semi-finals at the French Open. In a first set that lasted 40 minutes, the world No 2 activated wall-mode, saved break points in two of his first three service games and made only three unforced errors, a flawed statistic in itself, but nevertheless an indication of his focus.

After holding himself together in the fourth game of the second set, the third set was an even tighter contest and Sinner had two set points at 5-4, 40-15 on the Serb’s serve. As Djokovic tossed the ball to serve, someone in the crowd unsettled him, causing him to step back, before sarcastically clapping and giving them the thumbs up.

That was Sinner’s big chance but he couldn’t take it. A backhand error was followed by a forehand wide and Djokovic duly held before winning the tie-break, as he so often does, with the Italian finishing with three errors of his own. His time will come, but for now, he has to wait, while Djokovic marches on.

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