For the second Grand Slam in a row, Novak Djokovic is into the final and has a chance of reclaiming the world no. 1 ranking if he wins the title, after defeating Grigor Dimitrov 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(2), 6-7(7) to reach the Wimbledon final.
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Djokovic will play either Roger Federer or Milos Raonic on Sunday as he attempts to claim a second Wimbledon title after lifting the trophy during his remarkable 2011 season.
It was neither Djokovic’s best performance nor the best match the tournament has seen when Djokovic beat Dimitrov in four sets in the first match of men’s semifinal day. Indeed, it seemed to encapsulate Djokovic’s form throughout the tournament; the top seed clearly capable of playing superb, calm, controlled tennis and starting off the match by doing so, smothering his opponent with length from the baseline – and then lapsing, allowing his opponent back in when he had the chance to dominate the match and spending the rest of it lapsing in and out of focus.
Djokovic was ultimately the stronger player on key points, which is what enabled him to win the match in four sets, but it was a survival performance rather than a statement of intent and the match as a whole seemed to be dominated by the players struggling with the conditions. Both slipped on the baseline – which is not so much grass-denuded at this point as seemingly scorched and sown with salt – multiple times and battled with the wind, which on a breezy day in London was blowing from the north end of Centre Court.
Dimitrov, playing in his first Grand Slam semifinal, said all the right things coming into the match and made a fairly strong start – until the fifth game, when he played an utter horror beginning by missing an easy volley and ending by being broken to love, passing through double faults and backhand errors on the way. Djokovic, who at that point hadn’t missed a first serve, consolidated to love, breezed through the rest of the set and promptly broke early in the second when Dimitrov had a game point at 1-1, double-faulted, then put his forehand out for break point and saw an unlucky netcord carry his backhand out.
Serving at 2-1, Djokovic saved a break point to hold and actually had a point to go up a double break with Dimitrov serving at 1-3, which would have presented the young Bulgarian with a mountain to climb against the 2011 Wimbledon champion. But Dimitrov snuffed that chance out with an ace and suddenly it was Djokovic who gave up a rash of unforced errors to be broken back for 3-3.
Dimitrov suddenly looked newly self-assured and strong, throwing in slices off the backhand, defending well and using his single-handed shot to dictate points for the first time. He quickly won his third game in a row, breaking Djokovic at 3-4 to serve for the set, sealing it when Djokovic stopped to challenge on set point, only for Hawkeye to show the ball in.
It was a rapid reversal from being well on the way to leading by two sets to having the score effectively reset at one set all and Djokovic opened the third set playing poorly and leaking errors off the ground – and when he was coming into the net. Only his serve was still clicking and it kept him from facing too many break points, staving one off at 3-3 with a great off-backhand winner on to the line and holding his next two service games to love.
That backhand winner proved to be a crucial turning point in the set, although it didn’t seem to be one at the time, because in the tiebreak Dimitrov lost his footing on the third point and sent a mistimed defensive backhand slice into the net to give up a minibreak lead which Djokovic promptly ran with to take the tiebreak 7-2, helped along the way by a double fault from Dimitrov.
Once again the match seemed to be Djokovic’s for the taking as Dimitrov double-faulted three times in a row to be broken for 2-1 – but again he couldn’t capitalize, blasting a forehand wide to give up break point and Dimitrov chased down a drop shot and flicked a winner into the open court to level at 2-2. The Bulgarian saved two break points on his next service game and Djokovic three on his as the quality continued to deteriorate until the competitors arrived at a tiebreak.
With his back against the wall, Dimitrov took an early 2-1 lead, then pulled ahead to 3-1 in a 19-shot rally which ended with Dimitrov pulling out a good volley. A pair of forehand errors saw Dimitov lead 4-2 and as he pulled off another backhand volley, he gave himself three set points to take the match to a fifth set. Djokovic saved all three and Dimitrov calamitously double-faulted at 6-6, staving off the first match point by casually flipping a forehand past Djokovic at net but unable to save the second which saw Djokovic move into the final with a strong forehand of his own.
There were a number of areas of concern for Djokovic in the way he played – his mental lapses, his poor volleying and his inability to keep his footing or move securely on the grass – but ultimately he is into the final and if he wins the title, nobody will remember this match. Survival was the name of the game on a tough day and nobody plays that game better than Djokovic.