Never mind Roger Federer. Don’t bother about Rafael Nadal.
A Wimbledon that rued the early loss of some of its big stars witnessed a match of such exceptional brilliance that centre court seemed transformed into a Roman amphitheatre as Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro locked themselves in an epic gladiatorial contest.
At 4 hours and 44 minutes, the match — which had more twists and turns than a giant corkscrew — was the longest semifinal in Wimbledon history. It was probably, as more than one expert commentator gushed, one of the finest in recent history of the game.
Djokovic and del Potro, neither of who had lost a set in this tournament until this match, produced rallies of luminous intensity and a level of tennis that took the breath away. When this equal contest was finally over at 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(2), 6-7(6), 6-3, it was entirely appropriate that Djokovic’s hug for del Potro was suggestive of respect rather than commiseration.
Both players started confidently in the first set, holding their service games with a measure of ease and sparring evenly from the baseline in a manner that suggested the makings of a long and closely fought contest.
But as the set progressed, it was Djokovic, who was holding his serve more easily while putting some pressure on del Potro’s, who forced the first break point of the match at 2-3. He did not win the game though.
Ahead 6-5, the Serb stepped it up a notch with some fine retrieving when stretched on both sides of the court, which included an astonishing backhand down-the-line played in the ‘splits’ position that a visibly perplexed del Potro watched helplessly sail by.
The second set continued in the same vein, with Djokovic — who arguably has the best return of serve in the game today — continuing to challenge del Potro. Leading 3-2, the Serb failed to convert four break points, leaving the scores level at 3-3 and the opportunity for the Argentinean, rejuvenated from his Houdini-like escape, to conjure up a short string of sheer brilliance.
Four amazing points, including one that had del Potro scrambling to retrieve a drop shot, resulted in Djokovic’s service broken to love and a surprising reversal of the match. It was enough to hand the set to the Argentinean, who hung on to the lead and finally closed out the set at 6-4.
By this time, there were some unexpected patterns emerging. It was not del Potro, with his firebomb of a serve, but Djokovic who was firing almost all the aces. The Serb was also ahead on other service counts — percentage of first serves in and percentage of points won on first and second serves.
Interestingly, there was not a significant difference in the average service speeds of the two men, suggesting that del Potro may have sacrificed some power in an attempt to improve consistency.
If anything, it was the big forehand that was del Potro’s principal weapon in the match. Hit with an eastern grip, which allows him to slap it as if he were swatting a languorous fly, the 6 ft 6 in Argentinean used it to keep Djokovic scrambling.
The Serb, who attributes his elasticity and ability to do sliding ‘splits’ returns to a boyhood spent skiing, countered this with some truly outstanding retrieving. If there was a defining characteristic to this game, it was the battle between del Potro’s forehand, which is hit flat and often inside out at speeds which make it possibly the fastest in the game, and Djokovic’s two-handed backhand, which seemed to reach and return balls that others would have let go standing.
In the third set, del Potro, who had two break points at 3-3, became more and more aggressive with his forehand, which saw him create his chances. But it was the Argentinean who was pushed to the wall in the end. Forced to save three set points when down 5-6, he eventually went down tamely in the tiebreaker to an efficient Djokovic, who won it easily at 7-2.
Had the No. 1 seed done enough to secure victory? So it seemed in the beginning of the fourth set and even more so when he went up 4-3 with a break. But del Potro broke right back sealing the game with a backhand winner down-the-line.
From here on, the tennis attained levels of disbelief as the set went into a tie-breaker, which del Potro managed to win after warding off two set points.
The final set seems evenly balanced until del Potro, who gasped for air after one lengthy point at 3-4, lost the game and handed Djokovic a lead he would not squander again.
In the match, Djokovic served 22 aces as against del Potro’s four. He also made many more winners (80) than his opponent (48). Surprisingly, it was del Potro who made fewer unforced errors (37 against Djokovic’s 48).
Together, the statistics showed that the match did not go along predicted lines. More importantly, they showed that both players were forced to play beyond their strengths and outside their comfort zones.
It was this more than anything else that made this wonderful match truly special and extraordinary.