Present Tense

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Photos by Anita Aguilar

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—This year’s Wimbledon has been cast as a battle of the generations. A long-delayed future, we’re told, is trying to push its way onto the stage, while a glorious present is clinging desperately to its last moments in the spotlight. So far here, youth has taken a longer turn on that stage than we’re used to seeing. Twenty-year-old Eugenie Bouchard is in the women’s final, while Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are long gone. Nick Kyrgios, 19, knocked off Rafael Nadal, 28. Milos Raonic, 23, reached his first Grand Slam semifinal. 

On the surface, there was no better demonstration of that clash than the first semifinal here on Friday, between Novak Djokovic and Grigor Dimitrov. The top-seeded Djokovic was playing his 22nd Grand Slam semi; Dimitrov was playing his first. This was the quintessential match between youth and age, except for one small problem: Djokovic is 27 and Dimitrov is 23. The fact that they could be separated in years by so little, and in big-match experience by so much, is one more sign of how thorough the Big 4’s dominance has been. It has taken so long for the next ATP generation to make its mark, they’ve threatened to turn into grizzled veterans first.

Yet if Novak vs. Grigor—can we call their matches Grinole?—wasn’t a contest between young and old, there was at least a sense of the familiar facing off against the unfamiliar. It wasn’t especially well-played, but there was an unpredictable, daredevil quality to it, and it was tensely competitive and psychologically testing throughout. Both men spent nearly as much time sprawled on the grass as they did upright. Dimitrov, who at one point fell down and then fell again before he could get up, changed his shoes four times; Djokovic switched once. More than the shoes, though, I’d say the culprit was the dauntless way these two slide across the court. It’s tough to stop on the dust that passes for a playing surface at the baseline.

Dimitrov brought the same, fresh all-court attack he had against another well-traveled 27-year-old, Andy Murray, in the quarterfinals. Slashing, leaping, sliding, slipping, and crashing to the court, at his best he played with an abandon that can only be described as youthful. He opened up rallies with his forehand, fired 15 aces, hit 48 winners, and was 38 of 48 at the net. He also started erratically, double-faulted eight times—including three in one game—let an agitated Djokovic off the hook in the third set, nd squandered three set points in the fourth. It wasn’t a match that Dimitrov should have won, exactly, but it was one he could have won.

“Of course I’m frustrated,” said the Bulgarian, who moves into the Top 10 for the first time with this result. In Australia, he cried after losing a similarly tight quarterfinal match to Rafael Nadal, but this time he was dry-eyed and even-keeled.

“I came out on the court to win,” Dimitrov said. “I think I had a pretty slow start, but at some point I got my act together and I was really playing good tennis. You never know what would have happened if I had taken the fourth set.”

If Dimitrov played the role of youth, in the end Djokovic showed his experience. If we believe the cliché that champions find a way to win without their best, this was a champion’s effort from Djokovic. Up a set and a break, a stage when we might expect him to put the clamps down on his younger opponent, Novak completely froze up, seemingly with nervous tension. On his backhand side, he looked as if he were trying to swing under water, and he was uncharacteristically passive on his returns.

By the third set, he was so agitated he began a running dialogue with the baseline, which he felt was betraying him at every turn. Down a break point at 3-3 and reeling, Djokovic swung tentatively at a backhand. It appeared to be heading into the net but somehow crawled over and bounced twice before a stunned Dimitrov could reach it. It may have been the most important shot of the day.

None of this was new to Djokovic.

“You’re going through different emotions during the match,” he said. “At a certain stage of the match I was frustrated because I, again, allowed my opponent to come back....I've been more self-critical in the last couple of matches with myself than I should have been. I’m a perfectionist on the court. I want things to go a proper way from the first point to the last, so sometimes I get carried away with my emotions.”

Yet nearly as often as Djokovic digs an emotional hole for himself, he finds a way to dig himself out. This time he reasserted himself by rushing the net in the third set. It wasn’t pretty, and or even especially effective—Djokovic was just 27 of 47 up there—but it was a way for him to be assertive and work around the nerves that had locked him up.

“I’m getting that necessary experience,” Djokovic said later, “and understanding when is the time for me to, do what and in what way.”

Was it experience that allowed Djokovic to come back from 3-6 down in the fourth-set tiebreaker, when all of the momentum was with Dimitrov? There's no tactic for how to win three straight points in this type of situation; Djokovic himself has admitted that he doesn't have a “secret” for coming back from match point or set point down. But he’s made daredevil comebacks often enough that at least he knows it’s possible. That's enough to allow his instincts to kick in, and nobody is as dangerous as Djokovic when he's playing instinctively, with nothing to lose. He rallied from 3-6 to win 9-7 with a strong forehand approach, a volley winner, a forehand winner, and a forehand pass that clipped the tape and went over for another winner on match point. 

Maybe this is what experience is good for. You can still get tight, you can still get mad, you can still kick the baseline, you can still blow a lead. But you also know that you can do all of those things and still win. The present, glorious and not so glorious, remains on the tennis stage. The future waits again.

For complete Wimbledon coverage, including updated draws and reports from Steve Tignor, head to our tournament page.

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