No. 3 of '13: Theater of the Sublime

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Compact but grand, Centre Court at Wimbledon is often compared to an outdoor theater. That’s exactly what it felt like for four hours and 43 minutes on July 4, when Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro teamed up to amaze and delight us with a semifinal showstopper. If Djokovic’s eventual 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-7(6), 6-3 win wasn’t quite the match of 2013—it lands at No. 3 on my list—it was certainly the tennis experience of the year.

After a gloomy, chilly fortnight, the sky was clear, and the Centre Court grass, a drab gray for too long, was ready to catch it and glow. Jackets and sweaters were off, and sleeves daringly rolled up. Best of all for the British fans, the day’s nerve-wracking main event, Andy Murray vs. Jerzy Janowicz, was still hours away. 

As Alyson Rudd of the Times of London wrote the next day, Djokovic-Del Potro was “the tennis equivalent of going out for cocktails before a red-carpet premiere and finding the drinks party is so riotous that you have no appetite for main attraction.”

Here’s a look back that riotous opening act, in the three-part clip above.


—To that point, Wimbledon had been something of a mess—of upsets, injuries, and pratfalls—but Djokovic, the top seed, was squeaky clean through his first five matches. He hadn’t lost a set, and had dispatched the possibly-threatening Tomas Berdych in the quarters with ease. He starts this match the same way, taking almost casual control of the rallies. Djokovic is known as a defender, but he finishes in the forecourt more often than you might think. He came to the net 56 times in this semi, and won 42 of those points.

—Del Potro was coming off after a surprisingly inspired quarterfinal performance. He had taken a scary tumble early in his match with David Ferrer, the man who had beaten him at Wimbledon the previous year, and it looked like the Argentine might never get up. But Delpo did get up...and ran away with the match in straights.

The way he starts this one is more characteristic. As is often the case, his tank-like game needs time maneuver into position before it starts firing. Del Potro fires his first rocket at 4-5 in the first set; sometimes that’s all he needs, one big shot, and he’s awake. By the end of the set he's awake enough to try a tweener. It's the first sign that Delpo is ready to put on a show, as well as play a great match.

—From there, del Potro's inner ham emerges. He’s always been a low-key showman, but he was inspired by this crowd both as a player and a performer. The connection went both ways.

“I really enjoyed watching them as well,” Del Potro said of the Centre Court audience that day. “When I was down in moments of the match, I saw the crowd. They were clapping for me, and that helped me a lot for sure. Was incredible.”

You don’t see it all of his antics in these clips, but Delpo hit a ball at the Hawk-Eye screen in mock-anger; he took a seat at the back of the court after long points; he stared theatrically after missed shots, walked to sideline with his shirt pulled over his head, and ambled over to Djokovic’s side of the net to have a chat about a line call. When Del Potro comically out-grunted Djokovic during one rally, and drew titters from the crowd, it felt like Wimbledon had morphed into The Juan and Nole Show.

—Three thoughts watching these highlights: (1) Yesterday Ilie Nastase said that tennis has become so serious that it's impossible to put on a show. This match proves him wrong. (2) We’ve heard calls for a shot clock in tennis. It would have ruined this day; the sport doesn’t need it. (3) If you make men’s matches two-of-three sets at the Slams, you don’t get the last two here, which were the best of the tournament. You also wouldn’t have witnessed the resilience of both men, which in the end was the biggest highlight of all.

—None of the fun and games would have mattered, though, if the play hadn’t been so superb. Del Potro took huge forehand cuts—one of them was clocked at 120 M.P.H., the fastest at Wimbledon since those records have been kept—that sent Djokovic twisting and turning along the baseline. Crawling, actually; Djokovic spent much of this match on all fours in an attempt to scrape the ball up off the grass. Gumby had turned into Spiderman.

Yet Djokovic hit 80 winners to del Potro’s 48, and he cracked 22 aces. More important, he attacked judiciously. The key points came early in the third-set tiebreaker. The two players had split the first two sets; the winner of the third would have a major advantage. Del Potro went up 2-1 in the breaker, and he had the momentum and the crowd behind him. But Djokovic chose that moment to throw in a rare serve and volley, which surprised del Potro and led to an easy volley winner. On the next point, the Argentine, his momentum suddenly sputtering, put a nervous overhead into the net after a great sliding get by Djokovic. Del Potro wouldn’t win another point in that breaker.

Watching in the press section that day, I felt that the one thing del Potro didn’t show the audience was that he truly believed he was going to win. As much as I loved his performance in this match, if he’s in a similar situation at a Slam in 2014, I’d like to see del Potro not play to the crowd.

—Wimbledon classics tend to peak in fourth-set tiebreakers; think Borg vs. McEnroe in 1980 and Nadal vs. Federer in 2008. In both of those matches, one player saved match points with inspired shot-making at the end of the fourth set, only to lose in the fifth. That scenario held true again here. Delpo saved two match points in the breaker with forehands that left Djokovic shaking his head, and getting ready to do exactly what he didn’t want to do, start a fifth set.

—Like Borg in 1980 and Nadal in 2008, Djokovic shook off that disappointment to win anyway. Serving up a break at 4-3 in the fourth, he had become tentative and was broken. The same thing happened in the fifth when he served for the match at 5-3; Djokovic, as you can see in the third video, lost the first two points of that game by missing his backhand down the line, a shot that he has called his secret weapon. It wasn't the first time: He had been catching it late and sending it wide all day.

No matter: At match point, Djokovic again saw an opening down the line for his backhand. Trusting himself, he let the ball fly toward the corner. When he needed it, his swing was true. And it was true to the sporting spirit of this semifinal, which was the longest in Wimbledon history. Both players hung in as long as they could. They knocked each other down, and clapped for each other when they got up. In the end, they gave each other heartfelt congratulations at the net, for a job well done together.

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