Unbreakable Novak Djokovic beats Jannik Sinner to reach another final | Wimbledon 2023

new balance

Novak Djokovic refuses to lose. His will is as astonishing as his talent. Victory on Sunday will deliver him his eighth Wimbledon title, his 24th major. And, as he said after Friday’s semi-final, he is not done yet.

For a while near the end, against Jannik Sinner, Djokovic faltered. But he gathered all his resources to win 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (4) in two hours and 47 minutes, quick enough to have maximum rest before Sunday’s decider.

“It was always going to be very tense,” the world No 2 said courtside. “It was super close. The third set could have gone his way. He [Sinner] made a couple of loose shots and allowed me to get into the tie-break. He proved why he is one of the players of the next generation and one of the best players in the world, no doubt.

“I’d like to believe I’m playing some of my best tennis ever. I try not to think about the age. I feel a lot of motivation. I want to return the favour to this sport and play as much as I possibly can.”

Last year, the young Italian led Djokovic two sets to love in the quarter-finals before the irresistible Serbian recovered – and went on to win his seventh Wimbledon title. History can be as cruel or comforting as it is undeniable.

There was a stretch – between 2005, when he was a pup, and 2021, as the Lone Wolf – when Djokovic went behind in slam matches 73 times. He prevailed in 36 of them, mostly when under the most intense scrutiny during an era of unprecedented excellence. It was as if he invited the trauma that came with the prospect of losing so he could embrace the warm balm of victory more completely against the best players the sport has brought together at one time.

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Post-Covid, Djokovic’s resolve grew as he eyed greatness measured by different standards, and he gave up early leads just five times in four slams, going on to win all of them. At 36, he is the unquestioned nonpareil.

Yet, as his peers began to fall away with the rolling on of the years, even he wondered for how long he would remain interested. First to go was Roger Federer. Then, as recently as May, after Rafael Nadal revealed 2024 would be his final season, Djokovic said he felt “a part of me would leave with him too”.

Jannik Sinner plays a return shot during his semi-final defeat to Novak Djokovic
Jannik Sinner plays a return shot during his semi-final defeat to Novak Djokovic. Photograph: Alberto Pezzali/AP

However, there are greater forces at play. After many years of downplaying his pursuit of records, glory is what keeps him going. “It’s all about the slams,” he said, as he eased past the others to 23 majors. Now he is in a different jungle, always the hunted, never the hunter.

In his five matches en route to Friday’s semi-final, he had his occasional struggles but none to match the marathons of the old days, and not one to threaten his dominance. Only the seventh seed Andrey Rublev led him, briefly, in the quarter-finals.

“They want to get a scalp, but it ain’t happening,” Djokovic said, with a rare nod to casual language, after sweeping away the Russian in four quick sets, proclaiming this was not arrogance but reality.

Against Sinner, he expected a more nuanced and stiffer challenge. He got it as the 21-year-old took on the champion’s serve. But Djokovic was untroubled, saving three break points in a first set that lasted a mere 40 minutes, and needed just the one opening to go ahead.

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It might have caught his eye that there were rows of empty seats on Centre Court, the absentees shamefully preferring champagne under the roof, apparently, to paying homage to the finest player in the history of the men’s game. But his focus remained razor sharp as he unpicked Sinner’s game with calm authority, moving him about the court before delivering a killer forehand into an unguarded space, floating drop shots that teased him into a futile chase, or driving aces past his flailing racket.

It was not an untrammelled progress, although the bumps were minor and brief. At 15-all in the fourth game of the second set, the chair chided Djokovic for shouting out after he hit a backhand, he lost the point and clearly was unhappy. But again Sinner’s arm trembled on break point, and Djokovic, reinvigorated, saved to lead 3-1.

Inevitability began to crowd out tension. Djokovic had been delivered a prod that awakened his stubborn streak. Sinner had been reminded of exactly who he was playing and where: a driven genius who had not lost on this court since Andy Murray beat him in the final 10 years ago. He owns Wimbledon. Centre Court is his manor. What records remain are his to break.

Sinner did not fold; he is too good for that. Neither did he convincingly dent Djokovic’s confidence or aura. And, as the disparity widened, his own self-assurance dwindled.

Novak Djokovic gestures to the Centre Court crowd in reaction to their audible support for his opponent, Jannick Sinner
Novak Djokovic gestures to the Centre Court crowd in reaction to their audible support for his opponent, Jannick Sinner. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

After his brief agitation, Djokovic could not have looked more composed serving out the set to 15 with a couple of aces to go with five already in the bag. All parts of his game were functioning smoothly enough.

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Could Sinner, two sets down, do what Djokovic had done all his career, and ignore a scoreboard that spelled out doom? His body language, at least, was good and he made encouraging gestures to his box.

The net was an occasional impediment rather than just a barrier, however, and the moist grass made him slip and growl. Compounding his discomfort, 78 or so feet away was the best returner in the game. Sinner had to save another three break points to stay ahead in the serving cycle.

At the start of the fifth game, Djokovic finished a perfect 14-shot rally with a drop shot that might have tested the patience of a saint, but Sinner hung on for 3-2.

There were now increasing glimpses of quality resistance – a passing shot in the eighth game, and a 100mph crosscourt forehand in the ninth being particularly memorable. Then, after two hours and 25 minutes of fairly predictable tennis, an enlivened Sinner grabbed two set points. Briefly rattled by the crowd’s negativity, Djokovic, who mockingly applauded them for their interruption of his serve, paused, drew breath and held with a controlled volley.

Djokovic stayed in the set with a forehand that painted the line, but they went to the shootout with Sinner in marginally better shape. Still, they swapped ends at three-all. The great survivor, rubbing his eyes as if bothered by hay fever, steeled himself for the finish.

A fist-pump followed a smash at 4-3. He slipped to the turf, face first, at 4-all. Sinner netted a backhand for 4-5, and with a backhand to hand Djokovic match point. Another false shot from Sinner, and Djokovic was in the final again.

For another day, at least, he could say with conviction, ‘It ain’t happening’.

new balance

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