The brown sod near the baseline resembled a bulls-eye as the longest exchange of the match escalated to 31 shots, when Bernard Tomic suddenly smacked a forehand winner up the line. The abruptness of that audacious strike caused Novak Djokovic to crash to the court, wearing the dazed expression of someone engaged in a playful pillow fight, only to be smacked in the face with a bag of bricks.
The second-seeded Serbian scraped himself off the court, cleared the cobwebs from his head and relied on his survival skills and timely shotmaking to fight off the Australian qualifier, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, and reach the Wimbledon semifinals for the second straight year. The 18-year-old Tomic, the youngest man to reach the Wimbledon quarterfinals since Boris Becker in 1986, sent a scare into Djokovic in earning a 3-1 third-set lead, and was two points from forcing a fifth set before Djokovic denied the threat.
That the 158th-ranked Tomic, who arrived at SW19 with one career Wimbledon win, could test the Australian Open champion is not a shock—he swept fifth-seeded Robin Soderling in the third round after taking down 29th-seeded Nikolay Davydenko in the first round—but Djokovic’s tenuous and sometimes tight play as well as his flat disposition after the opening set was surprising, particularly since he’s practiced with Tomic and knows his game.
The 6’4” teenager plays extremely flat shots off both wings and is adept at taking the pace off the ball, lulling opponents into a false sense of security before driving a sharper dagger up the line. With the Wimbledon finalists from the famed “People’s Monday” match, Goran Ivanisevic (Tomic’s childhood hero) and Patrick Rafter (Tomic’s Davis Cup captain), watching from his support box, Tomic turned it up in the second set after dropping the first.
Djokovic tapped a tight second serve into net to lose serve and fall behind 1-3. When Tomic fired a forehand winner up the line to seize the second set, the Aussie fanatics (who channeled Buster Poindexter in singing “Bernie’s Hot! Hot! Hot!” during changeovers) stood cheering in unison. On the other side of the net, Djokovic degenerated into the defensive mode he showed in his 2010 semifinal loss to Tomas Berdych, dropping serve in the opening game of the fourth set.
Tomic stretched the lead to 3-1, but his flat shots offer little margin for error when his timing his slightly off, and he dropped serve at love for 3-3. That game proved pivotal, as Djokovic reeled off seven straight games to turn the deficit into a set win and a 2-0 lead in the fourth, deploying a devastating drop shot-lob combination over Tomic’s head.
Djokovic cracked his 14th ace to dig out a difficult hold from 0-30 and deadlock the fourth set at 5-all. Earning break point in the ensuing game, Djokovic pulled the string on an exquisitely struck, gutsy drop shot to win the game, and closed the match with a forehand drop volley Tomic couldn’t control, and the practice partners soon shared an embrace at net.
Continuing his quest for his first Wimbledon crown and the world No. 1 ranking, Djokovic will square off against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a semifinal clash that is a rematch of the 2008 Australian Open final. Djokovic will need to play with much more intensity and ambition in the semis, as the 19th-ranked Frenchman has won five of their seven meetings.