THE scoreline suggested Novak Djokovic had stormed to his fifth successive straight-sets win at this year’s Wimbledon yet the quarter-final tussle with Tomas Berdych yesterday was anything but straightforward.
Berdych bombarded the 2011 champion’s half of the court with an onslaught of winners and had it not been for two blink-and-you’ll miss incidents, it could have been the Czech seventh seed and not Djokovic walking off court as a 7-6(5) 6-4 6-3 winner.
“It was a close match and could have gone either way,” summed up Djokovic after he set up a semi-final showdown with Argentine eighth seed Juan Martin del Potro.
So fierce was the power being generated by Berdych’s racket, Djokovic was forced to showcase his full catalogue of acrobatic skills and on-court nous as he tried to stay on his feet.
Nowhere was this more evident than an astonishing 30-shot rally at 4-4 in the first set, which ended with a lunging Djokovic thwacking a forehand long and falling into the splits on the baseline.
It was a move that Olympic gymnastics champion Nadia Comaneci would have been impressed with but for Djokovic it only confirmed the challenge that lay ahead if he was to reach a 13th successive grand slam semi-final.
The Serb conjured four break points during an absorbing opening set but all four vanished within a blink of an eye, a 129 mph ace on one of them from Berdych demonstrating his determination to derail Djokovic.
An elastic-limbed Djokovic stuck to his guns, though, and he answered a fan’s plea of “Come on Novaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaak” by winning an absorbing 63-minute first set 7-5 in the tiebreak after Berdych’s forehand looped wide.
Just when it seemed Djokovic had finally got a stranglehold on the match, he meekly surrendered his serve to love in the opening game of the second set.
Berdych brought up break point by ending a 17-shot rally with a crunching crosscourt winner and then, along with 11,000 chuckling fans, he watched Djokovic sky a forehand high into the clouds before the ball plopped down into the stands.
That set the Czech on a roll as he raced to a 3-0 lead but, displaying all the signs of a champion who has won six grand slam titles, Djokovic kept his wits about him.
At 15-40 down in the fourth game, umpire Enric Molina called out “fault” as soon as Berdych’s second serve had skidded off the court.
Knowing that the umpire’s call had just condemned him to drop serve with a double fault, Berdych marched up to Molina and pointed to the linesman while yelling “He didn’t make the call”.
Molina would not budge and Berdych challenged the call. When Hawkeye confirmed that Molina’s eyesight had in fact failed him, a fuming Berdych glared at the umpire as he was ordered to replay the point.
Unsurprisingly, Berdych lost the next point and allowed Djokovic to win four games on the trot as the winners that had been flying off the Czech’s racket suddenly dried up.
Safe in the knowledge that he had finally broken down Berdych’s defences, Djokovic went for the kill.
At 5-4 up he earned a set point on his opponent’s serve and watched Berdych pay the ultimate price for taking his eye off the ball for a fleeting second.
With Djokovic crying out in pain as he slipped and fell on the baseline after he punched the ball over the net, all Berdych had to do was whack a shot back into a wide open court.
Instead, a distracted Berdych drew a chorus of horrified gasps as he slapped an easy forehand into the net to concede the set.
The match that had looked like it could stretch to five sets, with both players having hit 23 winners during the first two sets, suddenly lost its momentum.
The rush of blood at set point down effectively took the fight out of Berdych and a double fault on break point down in the fourth game of the third finished him off.