July 14, 2018
Novak Djokovic defied all logic to defeat Rafael Nadal in what was largely a thrilling baseline shoot-out.
On the rare occasions he came to the net or was drawn there, Djokovic thrived.
Yet for most of the match he stayed back, risking all as he put himself in the firing line of Nadal’s awesome power.
When Novak lost the fourth set 3-6 and came under massive pressure in the fifth, few gave him much chance.
But he slowly wore Nadal down, and won 10-8 in that final set thanks to an action-packed last game.
Forced to the net, Novak showed his craft there tellingly. Rafa had no luck and slipped while trying to avoid match points.
Finally, Nadal’s aim failed and a magnificent contest was over.
What a match, and what a treat for the Centre Court crowd, who had thought the Women’s Final alone would provide more than enough entertainment for one day.
In front of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and Meghan Markle, now Duchess of Sussex, Nadal and Djokovic put on a stunning show.
The Serb led two sets to one overnight and knew the final was tantalisingly close. But Nadal had plenty more tennis left in him and wasn’t done yet.
Nevertheless, Djokovic had the chance to deal a fresh blow in the very first game of the fourth set. He had repeated chances to break but failed to do so.
Undone time and again by his blind refusal to come into the net in order to press home his advantage, Novak missed his chance.
He has broken himself for precisely the same reason, then further bludgeoned into temporary submission as Nadal produced a stunning array of shots to take a commanding 3-0 lead.
But Djokovic regained his composure to hold serve to love, and then Nadal went off the boil on his own service game, allowing Novak to break with ease.
Just when the set had seemed all but over, we were back on serve and Djokovic had found some new confidence. He even went to the net and successfully executed a volley. Just like old times.
Back came Nadal once more, to edge ahead as we approached the business end of the set.
He attacked the Djokovic serve afresh and on the second of two break point opportunities, struck gold. Novak should have passed the Spaniard, but only found the net instead. Nadal was serving for the set.
Djokovic raised his game once more and suddenly forged three break points before faltering. All three were squandered, inexplicably, though Rafa must of course take credit for staying strong.
Novak should have passed Nadal again but played into his hands to gift a set point. Rafa challenged when his ace was called out. He was right. And the match was level at two sets apiece.
Nadal played such a powerful game to draw level at two games all in the final set that you suspected the writing was on the wall. Yet again, Novak was temporarily undone by his refusal to mix it up.
No drop shots, no charges to the net, it looked ominous for Djokovic. Yet his baseline game alone was sufficient to hold once more.
He even had a break point to go 5-3 ahead, with the chance to serve for the match. He squandered it, just as he had wasted all but three of seventeen break points at that stage.
Once again this said something about Novak’s confidence, his reluctance to bring it home when dominance was there for the taking. And yet there he was, still doing battle.
Even so, no one was truly surprised when Djokovic offered up two break points with wide drives at 4-4. Clever serving saved him though. And somehow Novak held to edge into a slender lead.
Djokovic was two points from taking the match as Nadal’s nerves jangled. But then Novak twice hit hopelessly long and Rafa levelled the match with two massive serves.
On they went, Djokovic finding all the angles with a superb service game to lead 7-6.
He was two points from the match once more, when he started to implode and yelled long and loud at his own unforced errors.
So it was predictable when Djokovic fell straight into trouble on his own serve and was soon fighting for survival by saving two more break points.
Rafa’s challenge to a baseline call brought a third, and Djokovic somehow unleashed a huge winner to stay in it.
They had hit for five hours, including 70 winners each, before Djokovic held to go 8-7 in front. Still, his rare visits to the net had mostly been forced upon him, even though he was almost always successful there.
Nadal saved a match point with a devilish drop shot that left Novak sprawling. Then Djokovic hit long and Rafa levelled with an ace.
It had become the classic we all knew it would be. In truth, it had been like that from the start, the previous night.
And Djokovic summoned the strength from somewhere to raise his game and find the weaknesses in Nadal, whose power and self-belief were finally eroded.
Novak didn’t do it the easy way. But he could still win Wimbledon if he allows his wonderful all-round game to flourish against Kevin Anderson.