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Novak Djokovic was weary and withdrawn for much of this semi-final, a shadow of his usual self burning in the sunshine over Centre Court, but even that deficit couldn’t bridge the gulf in class that swallowed up Cameron Norrie. The Briton had already defied expectation to reach Wimbledon’s last four and he managed to stir the most cynical of imaginations when he broke Djokovic three times in a barely fathomable first set. But with almost crushing inevitability, the defending champion raised his game and systematically ransacked the British No 1 of his spirit, cruising through the next three sets with increasing ease to close out a 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 victory.
Norrie fought valiantly until the end, but his shoulders had long slumped and a sense of regret might weigh heavily in the coming days. Djokovic had been so off-kilter at the start here, so heavy and inert, that you wonder if a better opportunity might ever present itself. But then, Djokovic has not reached four successive finals and extended an unbeaten record at Wimbledon to 27 matches by always hitting his peak level. It is an art as much as an ability to always find that extra gear when needed, to grind down his opponents and prick at their weaknesses just enough until the pressure makes them fold. It put paid to Norrie’s hopes but there was no shame in defeat after an excellent run that began as the ninth seed in relative obscurity and ended with him as a headline act on Wimbledon’s main stage.
“Yeah, [it’s been a great experience],” he said. “I can take a lot of confidence from it. To reach the semis, reach the Friday of the second week, is pretty sick. But I think for me, I want to go more and I want to do more of that and go one further and try to win a slam. I think looking, comparing to Novak, I think it was just the level of execution from him today was better than me. His level of focus, the way he handled his service games was better than me. That was the difference.”
Whether this sort of performance will be enough for Djokovic to retain his title come Sunday remains another matter entirely. An injury might have robbed Centre Court of a wildly entertaining semi-final against Rafael Nadal, but Nick Kyrgios will provide belligerence and fireworks in abundance. The pair are polar opposites, a relentless devotee versus a blaspheming renegade, but it is the Australian who has won both of their previous meetings and will be better rested and refreshed. “He’s got a big game overall, power in his shots,” Djokovic said. “We haven’t played for some time but I have never won a set off him. Hopefully, it’s different this time.”
If Djokovic starts as sluggishly as he did here, he’s unlikely to be let off the hook so easily. A veteran of 10 Wimbledon semi-finals, the Serbian began with three unusual errors to give up the early break. Normally one to keep his emotions under wraps, Norrie uncorked a huge fist pump that betrayed the scale of the occasion, having never previously been past the third round at any grand slam. He fell into a similar trap of nerves to hand back the advantage and it seemed as though Djokovic had settled when he produced one of the shots of the tournament at 2-1, chasing down Norrie’s lob volley and fashioning one back through his legs while on the run, but the 35-year-old then inexplicably stumbled again. Norrie seized clinically on two chances to break and a sense of disbelief spread around Centre Court as the Briton took the opening set 6-2.
Slowly but surely, Djokovic started to shake himself out of that funk in the second, almost breaking Norrie in the opening game, and then spurning another chance after the 26-year-old lost a smash in the glare of the sun. It was only a matter of time until something budged and Djokovic finally broke to go up 5-3 and served out the set with anger rather than glee.
The match might have been back on even keel, but the momentum had irretrievably turned in Djokovic’s favour. Despite a dive in vain and a painful slip, the Serbian’s level had been raised enough to grind mistakes out of Norrie and he broke in the opening game of the third set. A quick hold consolidated it and, although Norrie did his best to seize on the crowd’s support, rallying them after a gutsy hold at 2-1, there was little doubt as to how the remainder of the match would unfold. Djokovic broke for a second time as Norrie succumbed to errors and attacked chances that weren’t there, and that the Briton managed to hold at 5-1 felt like a matter of saving dignity rather than chasing victory.
The frustration threatened to spill over in the fourth as Norrie’s demeanour drooped and he smashed a racket against his bag after being broken again. To his credit, though, he fought until the last and survived a 10-minute game and two break points to ensure Djokovic couldn’t stroll over the finish line, even if hope had long evaporated. Djokovic did still reserve the opportunity to shout something at a spectator who’d been heckling him, prompting a wave of boos, but then that has always been part of what makes Djokovic such a formidable champion. No amount of skill, fatigue or yearning was going to stop him.