Wimbledon 2022: Novak Djokovic survives Jannik Sinner scare with five-set comeback

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 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Novak Djokovic was left furious by the late start of his fourth round match against Tim van Rijthoven here on Sunday night, and strode out onto Centre Court to face Jannik Sinner in Tuesday’s opening quarter-final, seemingly heavily invested in an early finish.

After just nine minutes, he had broken his young opponent and consolidated that advantage, racing into a three-game lead and already on course for the semi-finals in defence of his Wimbledon crown.

But five sets, and more than three-and-a-half hours later, he departed relieved to have that defence alive at all after being given a real scare by the 20-year-old Italian, who had been two sets to the good against the No1 seed on his first appearance at this stage of the Championships before going down 5-7 2-6 6-3 6-2 6-2.

He will face either Britain’s Cam Norrie or Belgium’s David Goffin in the last-four, that pair’s quarter-final contest running concurrently on Court No1.

That Sinner is a rare talent has been clear for some time. He does not turn 21 until next month but already has five ATP titles to his name, the youngest player to that mark since Djokovic himself managed it at 19. Already this tournament, he had had come through a tricky opening round against former French Open champion Stan Wawrinka and brought an abrupt end to John Isner’s run after the American had knocked out Andy Murray. In the fourth round, on Centre Court debut, he took care of fifth seed Carlos Alcaraz, too.

But this would have been the greatest triumph of his fledgling career, one which might have blown the draw wide open. Of the original top eight seeds, defeats and withdrawals mean only Djokovic and Rafael Nadal remain, the only live contenders to have won a Grand Slam singles title before, the only ones, in fact, to have even played in a semi-final. They remain on collision course for Sunday’s showpiece, but only just.

There has been some surprise at the way Djokovic has been so warmly received at SW19, given the vaccination controversy that has him effectively exiled from two of the other three Majors, and also his direct criticism of Wimbledon over its ban on Russian and Belarusian players.

Against Sinner, he didn’t not quite reprise the role of villain, but the Centre Court crowd made clear early on where its notoriously fickle loyalties lay, spurred to get behind the underdog by the sluggish start that briefly threatened to see him blown away, then charmed by the way he had taken the fight to the six-times champion. When, after winning a thrilling point midway through the third set, Djokovic gestured for more support, the response was instant and positive, but succeeded by a fair number of pantomime boos from those who had grown invested in the upset.

By then, Djokovic was needing a five-set comeback, having not gone the distance here since his near-five-hour marathon against Roger Federer in 2019, one of his two five set victories in Wimbledon finals. Sinner, meanwhile, had won two five-set matches in his short career.

“Don’t panic, Jannik,” yelled someone in the crowd as Djokovic brought up three set points after fighting back in the third, but it cannot have been easy, with the favourite finally hitting his stride. The fourth set seemed set to pass in a blur, Djokovic going a double-break ahead to make a fifth inevitable, though Sinner composed himself to at least rebuild some momentum ahead of the decider.

It briefly looked as if he may cruelly be denied the chance to go even that far, sliding, falling and twisting his ankle awkwardly chasing a lost cause to the net. Djokovic hopped straight over it to pull his rival to his feet to warm cheers, but showed none of that charity when play resumed, a broad grin on the 35-year-old’s face when he was himself spread-eagled after stretching to tee up the double-break that left him serving for the match. With Sinner’s resolve at last broken, he had little trouble doing so.

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