With his chest puffed, one hand on his Head Graphene racquet, one hand to his ear, Novak Djokovic turned to the crowd, inviting both its praise and opprobrium.
On this occasion, it was rapturous applause that met the world No 1 as he prowled his baseline, eyes bulging, heart throbbing, a sense of destiny hovering above his head. After a 45-shot rally, the longest of the match, it was Djokovic – who else? – who had emerged on top to save a second break point in the seventh game of the third set. This was to be the beginning of the end for his opponent, Roberto Bautista Agut. This was the moment that this match turned. This was Novak Djokovic in all his ferocious glory as he consolidated his grip on this semi-final before pushing on for the hardest-fought win of his Wimbledon campaign.
After four absorbing sets of tennis – in which the reigning champion was pushed and poked by the world No 22 – it was Djokovic, a four-time champion here at the All England Club, who eventually claimed a 6-2 4-6 6-3 6-2 victory in front of the Centre Court masses.
It was hardly his most assured performance of the Championships – such was the challenge posed by the 31-year-old Spaniard – but once momentum had swung Djokovic’s way in the third set, there was no looking back for the top seed as he pushed on to secure his place in a sixth Wimbledon final.
The pair were meeting for the third time this year, with Bautista Agut having won both their meetings in 2019 – in the semi-finals at Doha, where he went on to win the title, and in the third round at Miami-1000.
But making his first appearance in a Grand Slam semi-final, it was the the Spaniard who looked unsettled and nervous in the opening encounters of this match. What was routine for Djokovic represented uncharted territory for the 31-year-old challenger.
As such, it came as little surprise to see Bautista Agut broken at the first time of asking. With the Spaniard haemorrhaging points on an error-strewn forehand, Djokovic quickly rushed to two break points. Bautista Agut did the rest, sending a forehand shot well beyond the baseline to hand his opponent a first crucial break.
It wasn’t until 3-0 that the world No 22, just about holding serve, finally got his name on the board after Djokovic overcooked a backhand sweep.
Despite this, the Spaniard still looked out of his depth as he struggled on throughout the opening set, unable to find his footing against the whirlwind of shots – dropped slices, deft volleys, forehand winners – flooding his court.
And so, with 36 minutes on the clock, the second break was inflicted to hand Djokovic the first set. The deciding point was an innocuous error from the Spaniard but the one that preceded it highlighted the gulf in quality the separated these two men at this stage in the match.
After Bautista Agut had dropped over a soft volley into his opponent’s forecourt, the world No 1 put on the burners to rush from his baseline and meet the ball with a flicked backhand, driving it down the narrow corridor between the Spaniard and the white line to his right. It was a remarkable conjunction of athleticism and precision, and suggested that things were only going to get worse for the challenger.
Except, well, they didn’t. After offering little bite in the first frame, Bautista Agut finally sprung into life during the second set to make something of this match.
The error count dropped, the feet work improved and the hitting became cleaner, stronger, more purposeful. By the third game, with his opponent struggling to maintain his intensity, the Spaniard at last had his break, sealing matters with a thumping forehand winner across court.
From here, Djokovic’s game threatened to unravel. It was his turn to throw away simple points as he frequently netted and pulled his baseline shots wide. Twice he changed his racquet, seemingly unsatisfied with the tool at his disposal. And the careless abandon he had showcased in venturing off his baseline was long gone.
Although there was to be no more breaks, the Serbian looked half the man who had rattled his way through the opening 36 minutes. It naturally followed, then, that this would be Bautista Agut’s set for the taking. Keeping his cool on his serve at 5-4, and with a helping hand from the white tape, the 31-year-old held on to level the match.
A sense of equilibrium crept into the third set as both men settled into a rhythm with their movement and shot-making. The second game notably saw two marathon rallies open up, with the players each claiming a point: the Serbian hitting an overhead smash in the first, the Spaniard firing a forehand winner down the line that left his opponent rooted to the spot.
It wasn’t until the sixth game, with this set at 3-2, that the balance was eventually broken – and it was Djokovic who drew blood. After taking proceedings to break point, the world No 1 seized his opportunity with a forehand smash, letting out a defiant roar to the crowd to suggest that the malaise of the second set was firmly behind him.
This emotion reached its full-blooded climax in the following game, in what proved to be the moment that Bautista Agut’s resistance was broken. As Djokovic turned to the crowds after the back of that exhausting rally, you knew what was coming. There was only one way this match would end.
From there, the Serbian pushed on to see out the third set before utterly overwhelming his opponent in the fourth, his game reaching a level that the Spaniard simply could not match. Twice he broke Bautista Agut before serving out the match at the fifth time of asking.