Novak Djokovic knew there was something about Jannik Sinner long before the Italian threatened to bundle him out of Wimbledon on Tuesday afternoon. What he rediscovered about himself after coming back from two sets down to beat Sinner in five sets in the first quarter-final was that winning has never been easy for him in the tournament he treasures above all others.
Seven times in his career, Djokovic has recovered from two sets down to win. Yet there has been a shakier hand on his racket under pressure at Wimbledon, where, 20 times now, he has lost the first set and recovered to win just 11 times. In baseball parlance, he’s not always batting a thousand at the place where he has won six titles and might win a seventh next Sunday.
Last year, those faltering starts in slams put him in peril 10 times - the longest sequence of his career - and he managed to get over the line nine times, including twice at Wimbledon where he first bounced back against Jack Draper and then against Matteo Berrettini to win the title.
Five-set tennis is the ultimate test but, until they reach the last few hurdles, most ambitious players would prefer a few easier tests. Still, struggle has often been Djokovic’s experience at Wimbledon, a place of garlanded deeds for him, nonetheless.
This is his strength. He is one of the game’s great fighters, a player with extraordinary reserves of self-belief, built up through many campaigns at the highest level. Indeed, he is probably more vulnerable in the shorter forms of the game than on the big stage, because it is in best-of-five where champions thrive. It is the battlefield that separates great players from very good ones, established kings from young princes.
Sinner is one such prince, 20 years old, and one day he will surely have a kingdom of his own. If it is Wimbledon, he will have a ready-made audience of fans. On Tuesday they rose time and again acclaim his crazily powerful crosscourt forehand, his wicked serve and his all-round coolness. It was in show also when he beat the Spanish prodigy, Carlos Alcaraz, in the fourth round two days earlier.
This was another afternoon when he must have wondered if he could make an early breakthrough. He was superb in going two sets up before Djokovic steeled himself to the fight over three hours and 35 minutes to win 5-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2. It was Sinner’s first slam quarter-final. Victory put Djokovic into his 11th Wimbledon semi-final.
“It was a tough match,” Sinner acknowledged. “ I knew that before. I was playing well, and he raised his level during [the] fourth [set]. and I think the fifth I played in the right way, just I missed the final shots. I think I can be proud of what I have done here.”
All delivered with the right amount of quiet humility missing in other parts of the Wimbledon forest. And he recognises the fine margins that decide big results.
“When you are up two sets to love, you play every set in the best possible way. In the third when I was serving and was love-15, I hit an easy forehand in the net: love-30. Then he played a good point. Instead of being 15-30, I was love-40, and then he broke me. From that point he was playing better.”
Sounds simple. Far from it. Djokovic needed to dig into all his reserves to swamp the Sinner confidence. He has done it for so long against the best in the history of the game that it is second nature to him.
As he said courtside, “As for the first two sets, comparing to the last three, we probably had two different matches. He was the better player for two sets.”
He said later of his mixed opening: “I thought I started very well, was 4-1 up and break point for double break. He served well. I was playing against the wind and just played a very bad game, two double faults, two missed drop shots to lose the serve 4-3, and momentum shifted to his side.”
And being the better player for two sets is not going to win anyone a five-set match.
“Then I went out and had a toilet break and a little pep talk in the mirror,” he revealed. It did the trick - just as it had worked for Andy Murray when he took a break after four sets and came back to beat Djokovic in the US Open final in 2012.
On day nine here, Djokovic started fast, faded fast and recovered slowly. Sinner played outstandingly well to win the first set in just under an hour, and even better to go two sets up.
The youngest player to break the top 10 since Juan Martin del Potro in 2008, Sinner was playing tennis beyond his years. His face, mostly, was expressionless. Even when he fell heavily and ricked his ankle towards the end of the fourth set, he returned after brief treatment as if nothing had happened.
He will come again - and he will win big titles, maybe even this one, on a surface that is still new to him.