With his milky complexion and red hair Jannik looked like a saint on Centre Court. But it was Novak who played like a sinner. Italian Sinner and defending Wimbledon champion Djokovic kept the crowd seated for three hours and 55 minutes as an out of sorts top seed handed the 20-year-old the first two sets before taking the next three for a 7-5, 6-2, 3-6, 2-6, 2-6 quarter-final win.
It was that simple. Djokovic light and Djokovic full strength. There were considerable doubts that he could do it as Sinner matched and exceeded everything Djokovic threw at him in the first two sets. He outhit the champion, was more accurate, returned better and when Djokovic, in some despair, turned to serve and volley, he punished that too.
“I kind of played a new match, to be honest,” said Djokovic. “From the start of the third, I played three really very solid, very high-quality tennis sets. I felt, you know, that I found my rhythm and tempo on the shots. Yeah, it was two different kind of matches and I felt completely different from the start of the third.”
Judging by the permanent smear of concern on the face of his trainer, Goran Ivanisevic, in the player’s box, it seemed Djokovic, who has not lost a match at Wimbledon since 2017, had given up too much, too early to a player 15 years his junior.
Sinner played in only his second Wimbledon last year and went out in the first round. The former national junior skiing champion in Italy, who switched to tennis as a teenager, struck in the first set against the player hoping to join Pete Sampras and William Renshaw as a seven-times Wimbledon winner.
Although Sinner dropped his serve in the second game to love and Djokovic served for 3-0, Sinner found his voice in the seventh game, pressurising Djokovic to double-fault to take the break back. He did it again in the 11th game, squeezing Djokovic to earn two break points, a cross court forehand seeing out the game for 6-5 and serving out for the first set 7-5.
Unless the ball was sending up chalk dust, Sinner was retrieving almost everything Djokovic hit at him. As well as that the veteran was winning just 36 per cent of his second serves. In the third game of the second set Sinner broke service again and then again in the seventh, when he successfully challenged a ball called out that Hawk-Eye showed was good, for 6-2.
Djokovic was in a match where he was a day late and a dollar shy in almost every game. But he had been here before and had come back six times from two sets down. He put the towel over his head and came out in the third, finding his length and bigger energy.
He became the wall players often compare him to. The balls came back closer to the line with less clipping nets and falling out. His first serves began to run at a 94 per cent win rate.
When he took the third set 6-3, his gloom became radiant. Oozing control, the fourth set came easier at 6-2 as Djokovic found his strut and swagger that frankly the crowd railed against. Sinner was their man. But two more service breaks in the fifth set for a 6-2 win from a soaring Djokovic closed the match. He found game when he needed to. A gauntlet was thrown down to the rest of the draw.
Djokovic meets Britain’s Cameron Norrie in the semi-final an opponent he has played once before.
“We played indoor World Tour Finals, only one encounter that we had, and of course different conditions than what it would be playing here in Wimbledon on Centre Court semi-finals of a Slam in his country,” said Djokovic. “I know what to expect in terms of the crowd support and everything that you mentioned.
“For him, not much to lose. Every victory from now onwards is a big deal. I know that. But, you know, I practised [with him a] few times. I know his game well. He’s been around.”
Norrie, seeded nine, knocked out Belgian David Goffin in five sets 6-3, 5-7, 6-2, 3-6, 5-7.