It was supposed to be just the opening act before the main spectacle, so the spectators could be forgiven for being a little disinterested at the start of the first men’s semi-final. With Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal set to follow, there was an unmistakable air of drowsiness as Novak Djokovic and Roberto Bautista Agut took to Centre Court at 1 pm for what many considered a mere formality of a match.
But the very first point woke everyone right up. Djokovic hit a decent serve out wide, and Bautista Agut rode the bounce to strike a clean down-the-line forehand return winner. The Spaniard had clearly come to play – much before that other Spaniard would make an appearance.
Bautista Agut’s early feistiness presumably wiped out any sleepwalking intentions from Djokovic too; the Serb immediately went on high alert, and proceeded to hold and then break for a quick and intimidating lead. Did Bautista Agut hurt his own cause by starting the match in such high-octane fashion?
Probably not, because the difference in quality between the two players was always going to be a huge bridge to gap. Before the match many had commented about how similar the playing styles of Djokovic and Bautista Agut are, with both relying on rote consistency and opportunistic attacks to outlast and outmaneuver their opponents. But while Bautista Agut has the patience and the weight of shot to match Djokovic, he doesn’t quite have the strategic nous to find a way through repetitive patterns.
Djokovic flew through that first set like a man on a mission; it almost seemed like he had revenge on his mind after having lost his last two matches against the Spaniard. Playing with the kind of controlled aggression that only he can summon on command, Djokovic repeatedly broke open rallies with surprise change-ups and prevented Bautista Agut from doing any damage with his forehand.
But with the opening frame so comfortably in the bag, Djokovic did the one thing that every professional player is always warned against – taking his foot off the gas. The World No 1 lost a bit of sharpness on his groundstrokes and started being too passive, which was all the invitation Bautista Agut needed to establish a foothold in the match.
The Spaniard broke Djokovic’s serve to go up 2-1 in the second set, and visibly grew in confidence with each point after that. By the middle of the set Bautista Agut was going for the lines and finding them, shutting out any hope Djokovic harbored of getting the break back.
The third set was probably the highest quality period of play as both men, realising the importance of gaining decisive control, tightened up their games. The match was now a best-of-three-sets shootout which meant Bautista Agut had more than a punter’s chance of pulling off the upset. Doha and Miami suddenly seemed a lot more vivid in everyone’s memory than they did during the first set.
But Djokovic’s tactical superiority soon came to the fore – as we knew it eventually would – which made a telling difference. The rallies were getting longer and Bautista Agut was looking unlikely to blink despite being made to hit the same shot over and over again, so the Serb started giving him a few different looks by bringing out his underrated variety. Djokovic doesn’t have the greatest slice, but he knew just when to hit one to draw Bautista Agut forward and elicit a loopy reply. He doesn’t have the safest pair of hands at the net, but he made just enough approaches to keep the Spaniard guessing.
The inevitable break came with Bautista Agut serving at 2-3. But the Serb wasn’t out of the woods yet; he was in danger of giving up the advantage right back as he went down two break points in his next service game. And that was his cue to make the biggest statement on a day of statements.
On the point at 4-2, 30-40 Djokovic showed that, variety and strategy aside, he was the unquestioned top dog even in that most fundamental of aspects where we thought Bautista Agut could match him: consistency.
The two players engaged in a 45-shot rally on that point, and it felt even longer. It was hard to tell where the short ball was going to come from, because neither of them seemed to know how to hit anything less than an impossibly solid groundstroke. Deep forehands were replied to in kind, low slices were met with heavy topspin, and impeccable footwork ran into perfect technique. But ultimately it became a backhand-to-backhand battle, and that spelled Bautista Agut’s doom.
Djokovic hit a few regulation crosscourt backhands before tugging one sharply into the corner, and the Spaniard’s next backhand was a three-quarter length, slightly loopy shot. In response, the Serb took one swift step forward, shortened his backswing a tad, and crunched a flat missile down the line for a stone cold winner.
It was a decisive moment, and one that everyone watching recognized immediately – including the two protagonists of the show themselves.
“You know, (there were) a couple of very long games when I broke his serve and he had some break points. (It was) a very long rally; I managed to make a winner down the line with the backhand. Obviously winning that game was crucial for me. It gave me more confidence and relief so I could, you know, swing more freely in the next games,” Djokovic said after the match.
“I think I deserved a little bit more in the third set…I was 15-40 at 4-2 to make the break,” Bautista Agut pointed out too in his presser.
Djokovic’s reaction to the point even during the match was memorable. He put his finger to his ear immediately after the final backhand, almost daring the occasionally pro-Bautista Agut crowd to cheer him on. But he didn’t need them to; he was better than his opponent in literally every aspect of the game, and he was capable of winning even without producing his best tennis.
The World No 1 did produce something close to his best in the fourth set, and Bautista Agut folded quickly. After the highs of the third set the match petered out into a canter for Djokovic down the home stretch; by the end of the match he was looking like his flawless self from the first set again.
“The fourth set was the best set of the day. I’m really pleased with the way I ended the match,” he said.
Most of the crowd would have been pleased too, because the end of his match signaled the start of the much-awaited Fedal battle. Federer came up trumps in that one, which means Djokovic will take on the eight-time Wimbledon champion in Sunday’s final.
But if the Serb’s consistency and composure over the last fortnight – and year – are anything to go by, Federer will have a tough time making it nine titles at SW19. Djokovic may have been the warm-up act today, but he has made it a habit of occupying centre-stage at the end of big tournaments.
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Updated Date: Jul 13, 2019 09:29:21 IST