Underappreciated Djokovic shows why Wimbledon title path runs through him

LONDON — In the end, the Centre Court crowd cheered. But it came after Novak Djokovic had fallen, howled, cupped his hand to his ear and shown all manner of frustration, both with himself and the world on the way to his sixth Wimbledon final.

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Djokovic had inhabited every character in his persona as he got through the men’s semifinal challenge of Roberto Bautista Agut 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 on Friday. He got wound up by the crowd, he slid around on the baseline as if he were on clay, he dispatched those beautiful sweeping forehands, he fell in dramatic style, nudged those deft drop shots so they kissed the top of the net and clocked up the sets. It was your typical Djokovic knockout match. Appreciate it while you can.

Perhaps the most evident underlying emotion among the spectators watching this match was anticipation for what was to come. There was a restlessness. From the outside, it appeared like they were relaxed watching the first semifinal, perhaps even underappreciating Djokovic and Bautista Agut, regarding them as entrée to the main course of the other semifinal, between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

For all his grace on the court, his effortless style and his No. 1 ranking, Djokovic still seems to thrive most when he manages to cast himself as an outlier on Centre Court, a place he has already won four titles. The crowd roared when opponent Bautista Agut got on the front foot and took the second set. Perhaps it was that classic British mentality of favoring the underdog — even Djokovic suggested as much in his postmatch news conference — or maybe it’s that they have never really taken Djokovic to their hearts in the same way they have Roger and Rafa. As Djokovic walked to his chair after having lost that second set, he motioned toward the crowd to increase the volume in favor of Bautista Agut. He was welcoming the challenge while still recognizing that this is his court, one that he marks winning the tournament on by eating the grass. “I had enough support here over the years, so I don’t complain,” Djokovic said afterward.

Before the match started, many expected this to be a straightforward task for Djokovic; a case of get the job done, get the rackets strung up and watch Nadal-Federer. But while the first set was a walk-through for Djokovic — almost rope-a-dope at times as he tempted Bautista Agut to hit winners and then watched them fly over the baseline — the second set saw the Spaniard stamp his authority on Centre Court.

Novak Djokovic progressed to his sixth Wimbledon final on Friday by beating Roberto Bautista Agut. Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

This was Bautista Agut’s first Grand Slam semifinal, and his pre-Wimbledon expectations were so low he had booked his stag do for this week in Ibiza. But on this warm July afternoon, instead of moving to the relentless sounds and lights of Pacha or Amnesia, he was in his own dance with Djokovic on Centre Court. He threw everything at Djokovic, but it took him a set to work out how best to cope with the unrelenting nature of his game. “We finally have a match now,” was the verdict of one Wimbledon veteran behind the press box when Bautista Agut broke Djokovic for the first, and only, time. It was the catalyst Djokovic needed, triggering urgency and a longer, lower-pitch growl behind every shot. It was Djokovic’s Hulk mode. Eric Bana, watching on from the Royal Box, would have appreciated the transition, having played the character in 2003.

“It’s nothing unusual,” Djokovic said afterward. “You go through these kinds of emotional moments, especially in big matches like this, all the time. I mean, at least on my side. Sometimes I show my emotions, sometimes I don’t. It’s nothing really in particular.”

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From losing that second set, Djokovic was more settled but still gesticulated to his box, and at one point let out a remarkable wolflike howl into the sky after sending a forehand long — it was like the sound you make when you’ve just shut the house door and realized the keys are still inside. That came when Djokovic already had the third set in the bag and had just missed out on breaking Bautista Agut at the start of the fourth. It proved to be a short-term frustration, as he eventually broke the Spaniard twice and came through 6-2.

After the fist-pumping celebration to acknowledge a job done, he stood in the middle of Centre Court and welcomed applause from all four sides. He turned his hands to the air. It was his court again. But he will remember how the crowd rallied behind the underdog. He will remember his own frustration at how his game was derailed in the second set. And he will use that as motivation on Sunday when he goes up against an old foe in Federer. But don’t expect him to treat this like just “another Wimbledon final.”

“Of course, I’m going to be excited and nervous and everything that you can think of,” Djokovic said. “I’m going to do my best to control that in some way and be able to portray my best tennis in [a] balanced, hopefully, state throughout the match.”

But with Djokovic, don’t expect it to be an emotionless display. Expect him to be fighting against the world, chasing that moment of calm at the end where he soaks in the deserved recognition.

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