In Sunday’s final the sensational Serb will strive for this third consecutive Wimbledon title which would draw him level on 20 Grand Slams with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. “That would mean everything,” he said after this 7-6 (7-3), 7-5, 7-5 success.
But he knows he was in a battle with Shapovalov. “He was the better player for the first two sets,” admitted Djokovic, “but in the important moments I probably held my nerve better. It was not a straightforward match.”
Nothing like. Playing his first Grand Slam semi, the 22-year-old Shapovalov started brilliantly, breaking the champ early, keeping Djokovic at bay when serving, threatening on the return, and scorching winners beyond the Serb’s desperate sliding.
Andy Murray’s conqueror was playing wonderfully aggressive tennis in that first set and, now and again, drop-shotting the history-chaser which, for impudence, seemed akin to stuffing a sweatband in Djokovic’s barley water. Could he hold his nerve and hold his serve? No. Djokovic kept sliding, kept the rallies alive, kept trying to get inside Shapovalov’s head, and it worked. The young pretender coughed up a string of unforced errors.
If he thought that was tension there was the tiebreak to come, Djokovic winning it on a double fault. When you’re playing this guy, and he offers you the sniff of a chance, you have to take it. Like at love-40 on his serve in the second set. This time, maybe? There seemed almost an inevitability about Djokovic extinguishing the threat.
Before the match Shapovalov had asserted: “It’s the semis, anything can happen.” He didn’t believe in “underdogs, overdogs, whatever” - perhaps forgetting that Djokovic was channeling “wolf spirit” for this tournament.
Shapovalov was hitting shots which Djokovic applauded. He was hitting shots which left his opponent spread-eagled. But not quite the shot. Not like the one Djokovic contrived on his knees, a stop-volley while holding his racket like a crossing-patrol lollipop, and another break opportunity was averted.
Another double fault from Shapovalov and the chance of the set went to Djokovic. You can guess what happened. This relentless machine forced more errors from Shapovalov who was left thrashing his feet with his racket in frustration.
He regained his composure for the third set and maintained a high standard of play throughout. When chances came his way there were huge roars. Centre Court always does this, always seeking a five-set classic. Djokovic applauded too, but with a sarcastic smirk.
This felt like five sets but would be concluded in three. Unfortunately for Shapovalov he also maintained a high number of miss-hits and missed opportunities, Djokovic confirming his date with destiny with an ace.
“I have chances in every set,” said Shapovalov, “but it just went his way. Obviously he’s No 1 so that’s for a reason. He just probably played better and was maybe a bit lucky. But he’s an incredible guy and I don’t think he’s praised enough.”