By Matthew Futterman
Novak Djokovic has pulled off some masterful escape acts on Centre Court at Wimbledon.
Roger Federer serving with two match points for the championship in the fifth set of their epic final in 2019? No problem. Djokovic rallied and won in a tiebreaker.
Add Tuesday’s quarterfinal to the list for Djokovic, the defending champion and six-time winner of the singles title at the sport’s most prestigious tournament, including the last three. His triumph, 5-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2, over Jannik Sinner, the rising 20-year-old Italian, was a simple lesson in regicide — when you come to slay a king, do it fast or not at all.
“I always believe I can turn a match around,” he said when it was over.
Djokovic, the winner of 20 Grand Slam singles titles, entered the match having won 25 consecutive matches at Wimbledon. The last time Djokovic lost at Wimbledon was in 2017 (the tournament was canceled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic) when he retired with an elbow injury in the middle of the second set of his quarterfinal against Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic. He is now 10-1 at Wimbledon when a match goes five sets.
The last time he lost a match here that he played to its conclusion was in 2016, when he lost to the American Sam Querrey in the third round in four sets.
Early on, it looked like Djokovic was going to have another easy afternoon on Centre Court, the site of so many of the signature wins of his career. He had been so clinical in his first three matches, his movement, his feel for the ball and his command of the setting looking as strong as ever. An unusual scuff mark was a dropped second set against the unknown but hot Tim van Rijthoven of the Netherlands on Sunday evening.
With William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, sitting in the front row of the royal box, Djokovic won the first seven points of the match. A congratulatory roar rose from the crowd when Sinner managed to get on the scoreboard, but Djokovic still surged to a 3-0 lead.
Sinner, making his second appearance on Centre Court in three days, quickly found his sea legs. Every year, early in the second week of Wimbledon, the grass near the Centre Court baseline turns brown and bumpy. Sinner started aiming his powerful topspin forehand and flat, hard backhand at that area, and more often than not he hit his target, beating Djokovic at his own game as he pushed him back off the court on point after point.
Sinner drew even midway through the set and pushed ahead in the 11th game, breaking Djokovic’s serve once more with a massive twisting cross-court forehand, then finishing off the first set with a series of big serves and cut strokes that stayed low to the grass.
The second set brought more of the same, with Sinner getting an early service break and a late one to take the set 6-2. After 93 minutes, Sinner was a set away from the finish line.
But then Djokovic, who is the most dangerous player in the game when he is two sets down, woke up, and the size of the moment and the task seemed to grow in Sinner’s mind. Djokovic left the court for a break — a snack and a pep talk in the bathroom mirror.
For the next 70 minutes, he sent a message to whoever ends up holding a racket on the other side of the net from him in the final days of this tournament — his refusal to get vaccinated for COVID-19 may well prevent him from playing another Grand Slam for 11 months, and he isn’t going anywhere easily.
“I saw a little bit of a doubt in his game and his movement,” Djokovic said.
He pegged 123-mph serves that sent chalk dust from the lines flying in the air. He sprinted to catch up with short balls and drop shots. He laced shots within inches of the top of the net that pushed Sinner back as though he had an 80-foot pole jammed against his chest.
On his best shots, Djokovic put a finger to his ear or flapped his hands to the sky asking for more noise from the crowd. He even cracked a smile when a Champagne cork popped just before his serve late in the fourth set, breaking the silence and forcing him to pause and reload. This was his idea of fun.
Three hours after they began, Djokovic pounded one more serve down the centerline and Sinner lunged. The ball sailed long, and they headed to a deciding set, an earsplitting roar rising through Centre Court as Sinner settled in to serve.
It was all but over within a few minutes.
Djokovic grunts and grinds his way through the points he wants and needs. In the third game, with a chance to break Sinner’s serve and his spirit decisively, Djokovic spread shots back and forth across the baseline, making Sinner hit one more shot and then another until the young Italian cut a volley into the net. Five games later the result was official. Time elapsed — 3 hours 35 minutes.
“I’m just glad I’m through,” he said.