July 12, 2019
Novak Djokovic fought off brave resistance from Roberto Bautista Agut to reach yet another Wimbledon final.
The defending champion found an extra gear when he needed one to battle through 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 on a sun-drenched Centre Court.
If the performance from the Serb wasn’t always entirely convincing, he still did all that was necessary against an opponent who tested him severely mid-match.
Starting faster doesn’t win you a contest but it certainly helps.
The Spaniard won the first point. And not very much more could be said for his progress through the first three games.
It appeared that he had frozen. Forgotten how to do the basic things that had enabled him to reach the last four in the first place.
Unforced errors aplenty from Bautista Agut. Into double figures. Ridiculously early. A reflection of self-doubt.
At least he won the fourth game. But there was a key point in the fifth when the pair duked it out in the first truly meaningful rally.
It was as though Novak said: ‘Really? So you wanna dance? Watch this!’
And with that, he unleashed a cross-court winner of a different pace and class. And in that instant, you sensed Djokovic was going to win eventually.
To his credit, Bautista Agut took another game. But then Djokovic replied with sheer brilliance on serve to love.
The first-set closure was only a matter of time. It came sooner than expected.
Could the underdog gain a better foothold in the second? Yes he could. And then some.
You almost felt the intensity drain away from Djokovic as he allowed Roberto to find his feet at last.
And Bautista Agut showed his quality as he broke and consolidated to take a 3-1 lead. Suddenly his shots had range and conviction. Suddenly he believed in his talent.
Novak needed to shut this revival down quickly but it was a struggle. The favourite had to fend off two more break points as his challenger threatened to run away with the set.
Djokovic took the next game. And on it went with serve, but Novak couldn’t break back.
And so it boiled down to a low-flying missile from Agut that hit the ribbon and dribbled over the net. There was no chance for Djokovic to make the ground and so the set was over.
The crowd cheered and Djokovic appeared to encourage this sarcastically, as though Centre Court shouldn’t have enjoyed such a cruel moment.
But why shouldn’t the fans have cheered? They wanted a truly competitive match and now they had one.
Djokovic swished his racquet in anger and shook his head as Bautista Agut held superbly, early in the third. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
But Novak came up with a scintillating return game to go 4-2 ahead after dictating the rallies with cutting angles and telling tactical intelligence.
He then survived two break points, the second by prevailing in a seemingly never-ending rally when he simply refused to be outlasted. Soon the set was Novak’s and he was effectively on his way to the final.
Few expected Bautista Agut to put up too much of a fight in the fourth set. But to his credit he refused to abandon hope in the early exchanges.
Then Novak fell awkwardly in the third game, when his left foot gave way on the baseline. He didn’t seem to be hurt. He even got up to break serve. And that was pretty much that.
Novak tightened his stranglehold. This time he didn’t go, though he did miss with a few attempted fatal blows.
After four match points passed him by, the match was still his on the fifth.
There is something inevitable and noble about Djokovic and his Wimbledon title defence.