Standing on the precipice of history, Novak Djokovic refused to wobble in the face of a tempest of youth. The defending champion is through to the final of Wimbledon again, but a 7-6 7-5 7-5 scoreline hardly reveals the frenetic nature of his victory over Denis Shapovalov, which required the world No 1 to draw on every ounce of his cunning, experience, and stubborn resolve to tame his daredevil opponent.
With the glittering dream of a Golden Slam still alive and the promise of equalling Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s men’s grand slam record now in tantalising reach, Djokovic will face the relentlessly hard-serving Matteo Berrettini in Sunday’s final. It will take a momentous effort by the Italian to match the breathless barrage Shapovalov produced here.
Playing in his first grand slam semi-final, the Canadian elevated his all-or-nothing style to tennis’s equivalent of Russian roulette as he hurtled at full throttle into every rally, with a punishing and no less vicious forehand that had already put paid to Andy Murray in the third round. But in only his ninth match at Wimbledon, Shapovalov found it impossible to maintain his composure in such a bubbling cauldron, which was only stoked further by such a merciless opponent. In all, Shapovalov squandered eleven break points that could have changed the course of this match and history, and at the end of each set, in what became a desperate cycle, his nerves cruelly deserted him to hand Djokovic victory.
The 22-year-old left the court in tears, but once the adrenaline subsides, the scale of his progress will sink in and he can hold his head high. Ultimately, this was not just a match settled by superior quality but maturity and, under a strain he’s never known, Shapovalov succumbed to the toll. Djokovic was infallible and adjusted expertly to forge a path to victory, as he has managed to so stubbornly for the last decade. But even he had to learn that skill under the gaze of such harsh experiences that Shapovalov endured here.
“I don’t think the scoreline says enough about the performance or the match. He was serving for the first set and was probably the better player, had many chances,” Djokovic said afterwards. “I would like to give him a big round of applause for everything he has done today and also this two weeks. We are going to see a lot of him in the future, he is a great player.”
Shapovalov had come out the blocks like an unhinged racehorse, stampeding with adrenaline and aggression, and that blaze of youth seemed to startle Djokovic. The Canadian, competing in a grand slam semi-final for the first time in his career, was utterly irrepressible, his groundstrokes spitting off the grass with venom, and Djokovic couldn’t stifle the barrage. Rarely forced to his supreme level in the tournament, conceding just one set in a scruffy opening match, Djokovic produced an inexplicable double fault under a wave of unfamiliar pressure at deuce and Shapovalov capitalised to break serve early in the first set.
Eyes bulging wide, not so much revelling as enraptured by the occasion, Shapovalov’s storm showed no sign of relenting. By the time he’d raced into a 5-4 lead, the 22-year-old had conceded just a meagre two points on his own serve and had held his last three games in succession to love. What’s more, he had ruthlessly dictated every rally, refusing to allow Djokovic even the vaguest foothold out of respect. But at the crucial moment, the Canadian’s composure deserted him. Needing only to hold to take the first set, two unforced errors betrayed his nerves and invited a tide of pressure. Worse still, after recovering to 30-30, a framed return sat up tantalisingly just over the net and the entire court gaped. Requiring only the most nonchalant of swats, Shapovalov thrashed wildly on his forehand like a bull seeing red. The ball sailed long, his serve was broken, and another streak of sloppy mistakes and then a double fault handed Djokovic the first set on a tiebreak.
Bitterly frustrated, Shapovalov followed his instincts and duly upped the ante, going gung-ho at every point with varying degrees of success. No player had boasted such a tally of winners and unforced errors in equal measure this fortnight and, for a while in the second set, Shapovalov was able to take control of his own fortune, pouncing with hostility on Djokovic’s serve and conceding barely a glimmer on his own. He forced five break points but still couldn’t find an answer at the pivotal moment as another inexplicable forehand fizzed wide at 2-1.
To Djokovic’s credit, despite being outplayed for large portions of the match, he used all his cunning and experience to disturb Shapovalov’s rhythm, rushing into the net and mixing drop shots into drumming rallies. But the defending champion’s greatest advantage was not just the sheer ability that’s spurred him to 19 grand slam titles, but the maturity that’s underlined them. When the pressure mounted, he failed to fluster, producing arrowing serves that flicked the line to stem the danger. And as the end of the second set came to the fore, and the threat of reality eroded Shapovalov’s fearlessness, once again the Canadian unmistakably lost his nerve. Four unforced errors handed Djokovic the break point. Only one was required as another double fault meekly surrendered the game. Frothing with anger, Shapovalov vented furiously at the umpire as a Hawk-Eye challenge sealed the set in Djokovic’s favour.
The youngest player to crack the top-30 since 2005, with a breakthrough victory against Rafael Nadal at just 18 years old, Shapovalov has always guaranteed a refusal to give in. At 1-1 in the third set, he mounted another bold attack on Djokovic’s serve, but what followed amounted to a familiar pattern. He dominated the rallies, brought up two break points at 15-40, but tensed up and crumbled in long rallies of attrition. This time, though, when the examination of his own serve immediately followed, Shapovalov dug deep and produced a streak of emphatic winners to save five break points in the space of two service games.
His resistance could only survive for so long, though. The pattern had become distressing by the time Shapovalov delivered another two double faults at 5-5 and three unforced errors confirmed the, by that stage, inevitable break. Djokovic ruthlessly closed out his victory. Shapovalov left the court in tears, but he also put down a mark. He might not have been able to stop Djokovic’s relentless march towards history, but he proved that he might one day be able to forge some of his own here.