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Novak Djokovic pulls the rug out from under Denis Shapovalov in claiming their Wimbledon semifinal
Each set was close, each set was exciting, each set seemed as if it could go either way. But in the end, each set went the world No. 1's way on Friday at the All England Club.
Published Jul 09, 2021
MATCH POINT: Djokovic defeats Shapovalov to reach 30th major final
For a straight-set semifinal, Novak Djokovic’s 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-5 win over Denis Shapovalov had a lot going on. The match may or may not have been closer than the scores indicated, but it was certainly more explosive and suspenseful.
Shapovalov leapt out of the gate at top speed, broke serve early, and was the more dynamic and proactive player for the first nine games. A few of his early turbo-charged forehands brought a collective gasp from the Centre Court crowd, and his short-hop, one-handed backhand winners into the corners were met with looks of disbelief from his opponent. In the second set, Shapovalov continued to send Djokovic sliding into the corners to chase down his dive-bombing ground strokes, and earned five more break points.
Yet in both cases, and again in the third set, all of Shapovalov’s dazzling derring-do, and his 40 winners, went for nought. Unfortunately for him, he was facing the one player who knew how to weather this shot-making storm, and who had the skills to survive it. Djokovic did what he has done so many times before: He found ways to disrupt his opponent and make him hit extra balls at just the right moments, and he saved his best shots for when they helped him the most. Each set was close, each set was exciting, each set seemed as if it could go either way: But in the end each set went Djokovic’s way.
“In important moments I think I probably held my nerves better than he did,” Djokovic said, “and just make him play an extra shot, make him do an unforced error, which was the case.”
“But it was not a straightforward match, even though it was a straight-set victory. It was very close.”
The match’s first turning-point moment came with Shapovalov serving at 5-4 in the first set. Up to this stage, he had been dominant with his serve and from the ground. But on the first two points of this game, Djokovic tried something different. He hit hard slice backhands that elicited two errors into the net from Shapovalov for 0-30. Three points later, Djokovic made a seemingly impossible forehand get, and Shapovalov, forced to hit a ball he didn’t think he would have to hit, made another error. Djokovic broke soon after, stopped Shapo’s momentum, and stole the set away in a tiebreaker.
“He pulled the rug out from under Shapovalov,” John McEnroe said.
The second turning-point moment came at 5-5 in the second set. Again, Shapovalov had been dictating most of the action, and had earned five break points to none for Djokovic. But again, it was Djokovic who came up with the decisive shot. In this case, it was a perfect backhand topspin lob, hit from well behind the baseline, to set up his first break point of the set. Shapovalov double faulted, and Djokovic held at love for a two-set lead.
“I had chances in every set,” said Shapovalov, who converted just one of 10 break points. “I was kind of able to either maintain that confidence or come back to it every single set. Just a couple points didn’t go my way today. A couple strokes could have been different. It could have been a different match.
“But it’s a learning process for me. Hopefully I can take a lot from this match and use it to keep going forward.”
One thing the rest of us can take away is that, even as Roger Federer contemplates retirement and Rafael Nadal reduces his schedule, Djokovic at 34 still appears to be in his physical and mental prime. On more than one occasion, Shapovalov seemed to have a point won, only to see Djokovic either stab the ball back, or come sprinting across the court to hit a passing shot. The Next Gen keeps throwing different guys at him—Daniil Medvedev in Australia, Stefanos Tsitsipas in Paris, Shapovalov here—and Djokovic keeps fending them off.
Djokovic says he hopes he’ll have the Centre Court crowd behind him as he tries to tie Federer and Nadal with 20 major titles on Sunday. He realizes that his opponent, another Next Genner, Matteo Berrettini, may be the fan favorite because he’s the underdog, but he hopes they’ll save a few cheers for him.
“Hopefully people can also recognize also the importance of this match for me, the history that is on the line,” Djokovic said. “I’m prepared for anything really that is going to happen in terms of the crowd support on Sunday. I’ve had many different experiences throughout my career. I just need to focus on myself and what I need to do.”
The crowd was mostly rooting for Shapovalov against Djokovic on Friday, but he found a way to do what he needed to do, exactly when he needed to do it. With the men’s major-title record and a calendar-year Grand Slam both in his sights on Sunday, the pressure will be on Djokovic’s shoulders, alone, again. And that’s just the way he likes it.