Wimbledon 2015: Djokovic scores No50 to reach 27th Major semi against Gasquet

Novak Djokovic beats Marin Cilic to set up a Wimbledon semi-final clash against Richard Gasquet, who overcame Stan Wawrinka

There was no getting away from the fact that men’s quarter-final day at Wimbledon was packed not just with quality and class, but with variety and intrigue too.

While the bottom half of the draw was gradually funnelling long-standing rivals and Wimbledon champions, No2 Roger Federer and No3 Andy Murray, towards a highly-anticipated semi-final face-off, the top half of the draw was doing the same with world No1 and defending champion Novak Djokovic and No4 Stan Wawrinka—Australian Open champions both, and lately engaged in an enthralling final at the French Open, where Wawrinka halted a four-month unbroken run by the mighty Serb.

Both had tough and contrasting challenges before the tantalising prospect of their first Major meeting on grass. Wawrinka took on the fellow one-handed backhand of Frenchman Richard Gasquet in only their third meeting, and their last, at Roland Garros in 2013, was a five-set thriller.

Djokovic, though, faced US Open champion Marin Cilic, and although Djokovic owned one of his most dominant head-to-head records over the current world No9, 12-0, their most recent Grand Slam meeting was at this very tournament at this very stage last year—and Cilic led by two sets to one before running out of steam.

This time around, there were some serious milestones on the line for Djokovic. First, his 50th Wimbledon match-win, something achieved by only six other men in the Open era, and also his 650th career win, a tally reached by only two other active players, Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Cilic knew he had to be aggressive, just as Kevin Anderson had been in taking Djokovic to five sets, but against one of the best returners in tennis, that would not be enough: Djokovic had not fallen short of the semi-finals here since 2009—Cilic was still in search of his first semi here.

And in truth, the superiority of Djokovic was clear from the very start, in a match that was a pale imitation of last year’s. Here was a defending champion who has lost only three matches this year, and he exudes confidence. He broke quickly, in the third game, throwing down a serving marker against the tall Croat, and it was enough to seal the first set, 6-4, in 35 minutes.

In the second, Djokovic cranked up the love holds, and converted one of three break points in ninth game—leaving the Serb to serve it out, 6-4. The problem for Cilic was not that he was playing poorly: the unforced errors were relatively few, fewer than his winners in every set. But there were forced errors aplenty, and fewer winners than Cilic may be accustomed to by virtue of Djokovic’s remarkable defence-turned attack. He never worked a single break chance in the match.

Given the opportunity to break in the seventh game of the third set, Djokovic took it, and that was all he needed. Djokovic served it out, 6-4, his 50th win at Wimbledon.

He was pragmatic in assessing his performance, and entirely accurate: “Very solid. I managed to make three decisive breaks in each set. I came out with the right intensity, moved well all over the court, tried to get as many returns back in play. I didn’t allow Marin to come back in the match… I’ve been playing really good [and] I’m hoping I have that extra gear. I’m hoping it can come out now in semi-finals, most important matches, final stages of the tournament.”

He would no doubt also have one eye on the drama that was unfolding on Court 1, a glorious battle of seesawing fortunes.

All the craft and touch of Gasquet that had taken him to the semis here eight years ago had Wawrinka in trouble before the Swiss had found his formidable power. He broke early and held for the set, 6-4 in a scant half hour, but Wawrinka did just the same in the second, running to a 6-4 set in 34 minutes. The next two sets followed the same pattern, two half-hour sets, the third to Wawrinka, 6-3, the fourth to Gasquet, 6-4.

The final set would encapsulate the rest of the match in one dramatic surge of almost an hour and a half. First Gasquet fought off a break point, then Wawrinka faced deuces in the fourth game. And so they edged on, via glorious rallies of angled slice, curving cross-court forehands, net chases and athletic pick-ups.

It is a long time since Gasquet has played tennis of this pace and aggression—maybe not since he burst on the scene as a teenager to beat Federer in Monte Carlo. He has one of the most varied and flexible backhands in tennis and went head-to-head with Wawrinka’s powerhouse backhand countless times. And it was the backhand that stole what looked like the deciding break for a 5-3 lead.

But Wawrinka’s backhand is famed for a reason, and the Swiss struck back to break. Both were now playing tennis of the highest order. At 9-9, Wawrinka finally had a break chance and this time it was the Gasquet forehand that saved the day, and suddenly he had three break points of his own—except that these were match points. Wawrinka hit a backhand long and Gasquet fell to the ground in celebration, 11-9.

Court 1 cheered, chanted ‘Richard’, cheered again. It had, after all, been tennis to bring a smile to the face—and Gasquet could not stop beaming: “It was very tough when I served at 5-3… I was happy when he missed his backhand of course! But I tried to fight, fight. I was very aggressive, and to win it is wonderful for me.”

So the expected replay of the Roland Garros final between Djokovic and Wawrinka will now substitute Gasquet for the Swiss. However, it has to be said that the prospects for the Frenchman are not good. He has beaten Djokovic only once before, in 2007, has won only a single set from him since, and lost last month at the French Open after winning just six games.

So while there have been upsets before, Gasquet beating Djokovic would perhaps count as one of the biggest. Remember though: the resurgent Frenchman has beaten a string of high-profile opponents in the last week: Grigor Dimitrov, Nick Kyrgios and now Wawrinka. He, and his burgeoning army of fans, will hope.

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