Three of the greatest men to have ever played tennis were, once again, in the frame when it came to the business end of a Major: Roger Federer has 20 Majors, Rafael Nadal 18, and Novak Djokovic 15—and only five other men have even made it to double digits.
They have shared the last 10 Majors between them, and the only man to intervene in their stranglehold on Wimbledon since 2002 is Andy Murray—absent since 2017 with hip injuries.
That the three most prolific winners of Majors should be contemporaries, should have stacked up more matches against one another than any other rivalries, and have probably denied each other considerably more titles, both Majors and Masters, makes this a very special era indeed.
The ‘big three’ remain the three top-ranked men in tennis, all now well into their 30s but still beating all-comers most of the time.
So what of the fourth man to have made it to this year’s Wimbledon semi-finals?
In Roberto Bautista Agut, it would be hard to find a less starry adversary. For the Spaniard is quietly spoken and unassuming away from the tennis court, happier in the company of his many horses than in the glitzy spotlight. In a recent interview for the ATP, he explained:
“It helps me a lot to get my mind off tennis, off the tennis tournaments, off the stress of the tennis life. It helps me a lot to clear my mind, to enjoy with them, to get a little bit of peace after the tournaments.”
He had such modest expectations of his time at Wimbledon this year, where his best run had been to the fourth round, that his stag party was arranged back home for this weekend. Instead of him flying to Ibiza, then, his friends would fly here. He put it simply: “Well, it feels better to be here in London.”
He, too, was into his 30s, a steady riser over an increasingly impressive career that saw him peak at No13 at some point in each of the last three years—and he is set to hit that ranking again after making his first ever semi-final at a Major, a few months after making his first Major quarter-final in Australia.
In 2016, he made his first Masters final in Shanghai, and last year he won the prestigious Dubai 500, but ill fortune then hit the Spaniard, both professionally and personally. His mother died last May, and then injuries forced him to miss Wimbledon, Toronto and Cincinnati.
Yet arguably he has come back stronger, fitter and still improving—with the most pertinent wins coming this spring. Twice he played Djokovic, twice he won, both from a set down.
So how did this modest man feel about his in-the-spotlight moment?
“They are one of the best players in the tennis era. They are such good sportsmen, and good tennis players. Well, it feels very good to be next to them and to be part of the semi-final in this tournament.”
He had got this far via five strong wins and three seeds in under 10 hours—though his illustrious opponent had played only one seed, and also dropped only one set.
And on this stifling afternoon, high in humidity and high in anticipation, it was Bautista Agut who thumped a return of serve winner on the first point. However, the wiry Spaniard would struggle to get another point in the early goings as Djokovic matched him for flat, baseline strikes and then some, drawing errors and a break in the second game, 2-0.
Bautista Agut took Djokovic to deuce in the third game, and on his next serve, facing deuce himself, found a forehand to hold: Centre Court appreciated the effort with cheers, 3-1.
Breaking the world No1, of course, was an entirely different matter. The Spaniard did work 15-30 with a drop shot that had the Serb, literally, floored, but in forehand exchanges, the Djokovic pace and length was unanswerable, as was the ace that sealed the game, 4-1.
The athleticism and pin-point accuracy of the Serb tested the Spaniard again, drop shot, lob, drop shot again. It was brutal and tactically brilliant, with regular forays to the net, too. Another ace, and he held for 5-2, and broke again, returning as only he can, to draw the error, 6-2.
Bautista Agut had dropped the first set in both those previous wins: could he do the same again? Well he got some big strikes in at the start of the second set, a love hold of serve and then some line-cleaning replies to break Djokovic, 2-1.
Djokovic had to reply, but was delayed briefly by illness in the crowd, and then faced two more break points. He withstood the, but the rallies were long and brilliant on both sides, and the Spaniard was keeping up with the pace, and drawing gasps from the crowd.
His real test would come at 5-4, serving for the set. Bautista Agut came under huge pressure, but a lucky net-cord winner on set point did the job, 6-4. The crowd roared, perhaps in disbelief, for how much did many of them know of this challenger?
The third set saw Djokovic mix things up a little more, drops here, angled slice and net charges, and precision backhands, and it earned him a break for 4-2. Then the Serb faced 15-40, saving break point through a metronomic exchange of 45 shots with a backhand bullet. He called on the crowd for their appreciation—and it was hard to deny. And he would serve for the set, closing it out with a net-cord winner—honours even, 6-3.
The first game of the fourth was an energy-sapper of 10 minutes, with Djokovic working break points but unable to convert. Bautista Agut let out a ‘Vamos’, one of first releases of emotion in the match, but in a flash, he was serving again. Did he really have the stamina to take this to five sets?
This time Djokovic got the break, after an epic 23 minutes for three games, 2-1. And that broke the back of his man, who dropped his next serve, too, while the Serb held to love for 5-1. With two hours 50 on the clock, Djokovic served out the match, 6-2.
It took the mighty Serb into his 25th Major final, and it will be against one of the great triumvirate at the top of the ranks, Federer or Nadal. Those two were about to play each other for the 40th time, but that rivalry has been outnumbered by two others, both with Djokovic: The Serb has played Nadal 54 times and he has played the Federer 47 times. And he currently leads both rivalries.
No wonder a grin spread over his face when asked if he would be watching their first match here in 11 years:
“Of course I will watch it! My coaches will see the whole match. I’ll definitely see parts of it. I’m a fan of that match-up as well. It’s one of the most epic rivalries of all time so it’s fantastic to see them play today.”
Especially while he himself is recovering, on the massage table, then at the dinner table, nicely rested and ready for the fray come Sunday. The four-time and defending champion will undoubtedly relish every minute.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge