Novak Djokovic produces epic five-set comeback to defeat Jannik Sinner and reach Wimbledon semi-finals

Djokovic extended his winning streak at Wimbledon to 26 matches  (AFP/Getty)
Djokovic extended his winning streak at Wimbledon to 26 matches (AFP/Getty)

Novak Djokovic stared into the brink as the bombardment from the fearless Jannik Sinner threatened to shatter his aura of invincibility at Wimbledon. He stared at himself, in fact, in the bathroom mirror and at two sets down. He emerged, shaken but unscathed, battling to extend his unbeaten streak at the Championships to 26 matches and keep his title defence alive, but only after the 20-year-old Italian gave him the mightiest of scares.

Djokovic shot a cold and lingering look down the other end of Centre Court as Sinner stormed into a shock but deserved two-set lead. Djokovic’s form at SW19 and the level he had reached through his opening four victories put the notion of an upset like this out of the realms of possibility, but until now no player had been unable to match his hitting in the baseline rallies. For a while, Sinner did more than that. Djokovic said he sees himself in Sinner’s game and in the contest of two similar arsenals, it was the Italian who executed better in the opening exchanges after a nervy start.

Djokovic did not flinch. He faced Sinner from the back of the court and found cleaner hitting, while taking advantage of the signs of inexperience that were beginning to bubble from under Sinner’s cool surface. Djokovic found his edge, too, turning to the Centre Court crowd and raising his arms as the cracks appeared in the Sinner game. Djokovic needed to dig deep and appeared to motivate himself by reprising his role as villain, and it led to the 35-year-old returning to his steely best to grind Sinner down and book his place in the semi-finals.

Ear we go: Djokovic reacts to the Centre Court crowd (AFP/Getty)
Ear we go: Djokovic reacts to the Centre Court crowd (AFP/Getty)

For Sinner, this was a missed opportunity but it will certainly not be the last. The world No 13 already has five ATP Tour titles to his name and his performance pushed Djokovic to the edge. The 20-time grand slam champion had needed to give himself a pep talk to turn the match around, and from there took advantage of Sinner’s hesitancy.

Sinner did not lose serve once in his three-and-a-half-hour battle against Carlos Alcaraz in the fourth round, as he prevailed in the contest of two of the brightest stars in the game. It was a fine performance, one that underlined his burgeoning abilities, but as he returned to Centre Court Djokovic offered a stern and immediate reminder of the levels there are still to reach. Sinner blinked at the abruptness of Djokovic’s early hitting and the speed of his returns. A double fault at 0-15 on his opening service game was followed by a forehand long as Djokovic broke to race into an early lead.

In the opening moments, it was easy to spot which player was appearing in his third grand slam quarter-final and the one facing his 53rd, but Sinner started to find his level and took control impressively. Improved hitting from the baseline was met with appreciation by the Centre Court crowd, as he stared down the balls Djokovic was returning. Sinner saved what would have been a double break before the unlikeliest of lapses in concentration from Djokovic helped to bring him level. Two drop shots into the net by Djokovic were compounded by two double faults, the most un-Djokovic of service games, as Sinner broke back.

Sinner became emboldened to attack the six-time Wimbledon champion. He set up break points on consecutive Djokovic service games, with the second serve in particular showing vulnerabilities. Sinner’s steel in the baseline rallies forced Djokovic to try and bring him in but the Italian put him away at the net and a powerful forehand crosscourt saw him edge ahead. A drop shot on deuce, completely catching Djokovic by surprise, was a mark of his confidence and he served it out down the middle.

Jannik Sinner wilted under pressure from a relentless Djokovic (AFP/Getty)
Jannik Sinner wilted under pressure from a relentless Djokovic (AFP/Getty)

Djokovic, rattled now, faced break point again as Sinner leaped to put away an athletic overhead. Sinner launched his latest forehand assault on the second serve and when Djokovic went long on the backhand it sealed another break. It looked as if Djokovic was starting to spiral, and the errors mounted. A further double fault was followed by the double break when Sinner caught the baseline. The second set followed and Djokovic made a swift exit from court to clear his head.

It worked. Sinner’s brazenness slipped, and a double fault in his opening service game showed the nerves were still there. Djokovic, reinvigorated, turned to the crowd and raised his arms after resurrecting a wonderful drop shot from Sinner at the net to break in the third. Doubt could be seen in the Sinner demeanour and a lob from Djokovic to bring up set point was followed by a thrashed serve down the middle and a long look in Sinner’s direction.

Djokovic pressed, seizing upon further hesitation from Sinner and again found the opening break. Sinner left a looping forehand from Djokovic and when it dropped inside the line, it was a further indication that the match had taken a significant turn. Djokovic, serving for the set at 5-2, faced break point and as he dragged his opponent around the court before deploying the drop shot, Sinner slipped retrieving the low ball. Djokovic helped him to his feet on the other side of the net but he was clinical in saving break points to hold for the fourth.

Man down: Djokovic comes to the aid of Sinner (AFP/Getty)
Man down: Djokovic comes to the aid of Sinner (AFP/Getty)

Sinner, kicking desperately for a hold, looked to settle in the decider with two early winners but the pressure from Djokovic was unrelenting. The return game, absent throughout the opening two sets, began to tighten and a flashed forehand from Djokovic onto the baseline was followed by a dipping backhand at his feet. Sinner netted twice to face break points, where a sliced drop shot into the net proved unwise. Djokovic, almost to emphasise his tranquillity throughout the fifth, then played the same shot to leave Sinner floundering.

Djokovic turned to the crowd again after flashing a backhand winner past Sinner, finishing in a star shape on the grass, as he ensured the fourth and fifth sets were not as close as the match overall. In the end, Sinner was overpowered and if there is another level required than this to break Djokovic’s winning run at SW19 over five sets, it’s currently hard to imagine.