Wimbledon 2021: Djokovic beats Shapovalov to reach 30th Major final
Defending champion will play Berrettini in pursuit of record-equalling 20th Major
What, then, could the former Wimbledon junior champion, 22-year-old Denis Shapovalov, do against the five-time senior Wimbledon champion and world No1, Novak Djokovic?
On paper, while this was the defending champion’s toughest match so far, and only his second seed, it was hard to see any winner other than Djokovic: He had beaten the young challenger in all six previous meetings.
As for experience, this was Shapovalov’s first Major semi-final, and he scored his first ever grass semi at Queen’s just three weeks ago. Measure that against the man who had won 15 of the last 16 Major semis he has played, and was bidding to win a record-equalling 20th Major title.
Djokovic had also won 19 matches in a row at Wimbledon, dating back to his title run here in 2018. So for the Canadian, it was an Everest to climb after already beating mountain-sized opposition in the shape of Andy Murray, No8 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, and a two-set-to-one deficit against No25 seed Karen Khachanov.
The extrovert tennis of the young Canadian had increasingly caught the eye through the fortnight, and it was building up his confidence to match his game. Of the test ahead, he said:
“The last couple of times we’ve played, it’s been really, really tight… I’m feeling really good. I’m feeling great physically and tennis-wise. Obviously, he’s been playing really well. It’s definitely a tough battle ahead of me.”
But his positive attitude shone from his message after his quarter-final:
“When you walk out, the score is 0-0. It’s a tennis match. Anything can happen. I’m going to fight for every point and believe in myself. I do believe that I have the game to beat him and the game to win that match.”
He started like a jet-plane, too, breaking in the third game, with his signature single-handed backhand winner. He held to love, as he did several times in the set, and looked the more comfortable player until faced with serving for the set.
Then errors ate into his lead, Djokovic broke, and they headed to a tie-break. And once there, the clean shot-making and smart tactics of Djokovic denied Shapovalov a single point on his own serve. Not that the Serb did not make any errors on his own serve, but he threw in a bold serve and volley to go 6-3, and Shapovalov double faulted to concede the set 7-6(3).
Shapovalov seemed to have the initiative in the second set, too, and looked at 0-40 for three break chances in the fourth game. The Djokovic tactics were clear: serve wide to the Canadian backhand and put away the short reply into the opposite corner. It worked a treat, and he held.
Shapovalov had yet more chances in the sixth game, two break points, again annulled by the same tactics: 3-3.
Yet again, the Canadian’s serve was performing well, just three points dropped as he held for 5-4. But on his next service game, once more at a key moment, he double faulted on break point and Djokovic would serve for the set, 6-5. Sure enough, the world No1 played the game perfectly, took the set 7-5, having converted his only break point. Compare that with Shapovalov’s conversion rate of 0/5.
The Canadian was hugely frustrated, had words with the umpire over a perceived unfairness on his last challenge, and when the two came back from a comfort break for the third set, it seemed unlikely that Shapovalov could turn this around.
Still more chances to break presented themselves in the second game—saved, of course—and this time, Djokovic also had a chance to break in the seventh game, courtesy of a lob made from a running forehand onto the Canadian’s baseline. It felt like the Serb’s moment had come, but Shapovalov resisted and kept his motor in flat-out mode to try and live with the relentless precision and tactical mastery of Djokovic.
Serving at 5-5, however, Djokovic again made his move, and eventually got the error he wanted for the break. With almost predictable certainty, he served it out, 7-5, to clinch what had been a tough victory, and reach his seventh Wimbledon final and his 30th Grand Slam final.
These are extraordinary numbers for a man who still has a long way to go in his career, and having taken the record of weeks at No1 from Roger Federer earlier this year, he is now just one short of the Swiss in Major finals: Federer has reached 31.
Of course, should Djokovic go on to beat Matteo Berrettini in Sunday’s final, he will draw level with the 20 Majors owned by both Federer and Rafael Nadal, and take a step closer to the biggest accolade of all: the calendar Grand Slam, not achieved since Rod Laver in 1969.
For now, the young Canadian stopped to raise his hand at his own standing ovation, but there were tears in his eyes: He will be back, as Djokovic confirmed in his on-court interview in profuse praise. However, the defending champion also affirmed, not for the first time, that ‘at this stage in my career, Grand Slams are everything.”
He has beaten Berrattini in both their previous meetings, including the quarter-finals of the French Open less than six weeks ago.