As Novak Djokovic finished his final stretches in the hallway before entering Centre Court on Friday, he took a lengthy glance to his left at the names of each former Wimbledon champion listed on the wall by the court entrance. There his own name sat, indelibly engraved in gold lettering five times on the board. When he walked by it again just over two hours, 44 minutes later, he had moved to within one win of adding his name once again.
He did so without even playing particularly well for large stretches of the first two tough sets, instead rising to the challenge of almost every big point and producing his typically resolute, nerveless tennis when it mattered to defeat Denis Shapovalov 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-5 and reach his seventh career Wimbledon final. He will face Matteo Berrettini, the 7th seed, in a clash anticipated by many before the tournament.
In the process, Djokovic has equalled Pete Sampras’s count of seven finals at Wimbledon to move joint second on the all-time list and reached 30 major finals, the second man in history to do so after Roger Federer’s count of 31.
The task across the net this time took the shape of a dynamic, gifted ballstriker in Shapovalov, still only 22, whose ballistic shotmaking and athleticism is often limited by erratic serving and volatility. He set the tone early, reeled off 15 service points in a row and took an early break. Each successful game seemed to unfurl another layer of fluidity in Shapovalov’s shotmaking as he pushed Djokovic around the court with heavy crosscourt forehands and delicate drop shots.
As he served for the set at 5-4, however, the complexion of the match changed. Djokovic had been missing returns and misreading Shapovalov’s serve, but he set the tone by opening the game with two brilliant, deep returns off strong first serves. At 30-30, Shapovalov balked, sending an easy forehand long. He lost the game with four unforced errors and then he played a poor tiebreak, finishing with a double fault.
Greater players would have surrendered meekly, but Shapovalov continued to strike the ball wonderfully until deep in the third set. He generated five break points in the second set, but each time Djokovic came under threat his level skyrocketed as he played with consistency and depth or found his way to the net. In both second and third sets, he rose at the most tense moment just before the tiebreak to seize control.
“I don’t think that the scoreline says enough about the performance and about the match,” said Djokovic afterwards. “He was serving for the first set, he was probably the better player for most of the second set, and had many chances. I would like to give him a big round of applause for everything he has done today and also for these few weeks.”
This was not Djokovic at his best, but that is so often the point of his success. While Shapovalov was charged with boldly striking the ball at the height of his ability for three sets with the knowledge of Djokovic’s resilience embedded in his mind, Djokovic was comfortable throughout. His base level and the breadth of his strengths are so complete that he is completely assured on the biggest points. As for so many players before him, it was a far too lofty challenge for Shapovalov.
Djokovic puts his clutch ability down to experience and he describes it as a continuous process that he is ominously still improving: “I think that experience definitely favours me every single time, next time I get to work on the court, knowing that I’ve been through everything that I could possibly go through as a tennis player,” he said. “I know my strengths. I know what I’m capable of. I rely on that.”
As Shapovalov left the court after his first grand slam semi-final in tears, he wept as the crowd offered him an ovation. In the locker room afterwards, Djokovic approached him with comforting words: “He just told me he knows how difficult it is for me right now,” said Shapovalov. “He told me that everything will come. For me, it’s super – it’s big coming from someone like him. He doesn’t have to do this. It just shows the type of person he is.”
Shapovalov said he was pained by losing so close to the title match, but he will eventually positively reflect on how well he played in the best tournament of his life.
However, nobody in the history of this sport has mastered the ability of playing well in the pivotal moments as much as Djokovic. There will be few career moments as transformative as playing for his record-equalling 20th grand slam title on Sunday.