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Djokovic silences young pretender

by Alix Ramsay
Friday 4 July 2014

Greta Garbo was a class act, and a tough one to follow. In the film Ninotchka, she repelled her suitors with the oft repeated line, “not yet”.

Novak Djokovic is a class act and, if he can possibly help it, he will not allow the new generation of rising stars to depose him; “not yet” at any rate.

For two minutes over three hours, he kept Grigor Dimitrov at racket’s length – just – and reached his third Wimbledon final 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(2), 7-6(7). The established champion of six previous Grand Slams was not at his best, not in terms of the forehands and backhands, but he was fighting for all he was worth. Dimitrov was not going to beat the older man, not if Djokovic had anything to do with it.

“A semi-final of Wimbledon against the future star,” Djokovic said, “well, he’s already a top player, beat Murray in the quarter-final – he deserves respect, it was a tough match. The fourth set could have gone either way.

“He has quality shots, especially the running forehand, he has great touch. He plays extremely well whether he is defending or playing offence. He’s improved tremendously in the last six or eight months. Overall, I’m just glad to reach another Wimbledon final.”

It is an odd thing about tennis matches: they can last for hours – sometimes for days – and yet the result can hang on no more than a couple of moments – a netted passing shot here, a double fault there – just fractions of a second in the middle of hours of sweat and graft. For all the hundreds of shots each man will play over the course of a match, it could be one moment of hesitancy or a split second of carelessness that makes all the difference. Once the momentum shifts, it takes a superhuman effort to get it back.

Dimitrov’s moment came at the start of the first set. He went to play a volley, a sitter of a chance, and he flubbed it. No matter, you would think, it is early days and it is only the first point of the game. But Dimitrov could not shake the memory of his error. Chances were likely to be as rare as hens’ teeth and he had just let one slip. Rats. Double rats. And by the time he had gone through that little mental rant, he had dropped his serve and the set was all but gone.

On the other side of the net, the serial Grand Slam champion had Centre Court in lockdown. The young pretender trying to beat him could do what he liked, he could be as flashy as they come, but Djokovic was giving nothing away. He was well into the eighth game before he missed a first serve (19 consecutive first deliveries landed), he was rock solid in every department and he was not letting Dimitrov anywhere near him. If the Bulgarian superstar wanted to reach his first Wimbledon final, he was going to have to run right through Djokovic – and at this point, he was bouncing off the Serb without leaving so much as a dent.

But Djokovic’s moment was still to come. He was a break up, he was in control and yet still Dimitrov would not lie down. He tormented the former champion with his backhand – he was not so much slicing it as shaving it – and for a couple of points, Djokovic did not know what to do. He looked up to his box and shook his head, he grumped at the ball kids (they were alternately giving him the balls too quickly or too slowly – he was not easy to please on Friday) and his nerves knotted. And he dropped his serve. It was the first hint of a reward Dimitrov had had all afternoon.

Now we had a match on our hands. Djokovic looked tense and nervy and Dimitrov looked reborn. He broke again and took the third set. Running around to pound his forehand, he was sprinting sideways across the baseline like a super-charged crab while Djokovic looked at a loss as to where to try and put the ball next.

The sheer athleticism of both men defied belief and the stretch and reach they both found when the cause looked lost made the crowd fear for their health. Surely the human frame is not supposed to bend and move like that. Not while running flat out in pursuit of a place in the final. But both of them lunged and fought and fell and got up again and did it all over again. There was barely a whisker between them in the last two sets.

Yet there was just the tiniest of differences between the champion and the pretender – experience. Djokovic had been here before, he had fought for hour upon hour to try to beat the likes of Nadal, Federer and Murray for the biggest prizes in the sport; he knew what this felt like. Dimitrov was the new boy and when the chips were down in the third and fourth set tie-breaks, he could not beat the old campaigner.

Dimitrov played a stinker of a tie-break at the end of the third set – he won just two points – and had three set points in the fourth set tie-break. And Djokovic would not let him take them. On his second match point, the world No.2 showed his young rival how it was done, put his forehand away and booked his place in the final.

As Greta Garbo would have said: “Not yet, Grigor; not yet”. But Dimitrov’s time will come and sooner rather than later.

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