September 29, 2022

LONDON — It says a lot about Novak Djokovic that a two-set zero hole at Wimbledon on a day when he was barely at his best never seemed insurmountable. Not to him. Not to anyone watching.

That says a lot about his story of overcoming that kind of deficit. Much about his ability to adjust, adapt and recover. Much on his pre-eminence at the All England Club in recent years.

Djokovic scouted 10th-seeded Italian Jannik Sinner the huge lead on Tuesday and then battled his way to win 5-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 at Center Court, securing an 11th place finish in the semi-finals at Wimbledon with his 26th straight Grand Slam victory on grass.

“I always believed,” said Djokovic, who next faces ninth seed Cam Norrie of Great Britain, “that I could turn things around.”

On the men’s side, only Roger Federer has made more semi-finals at Wimbledon with 13 and won more championships (eight) than the seven Djokovic could achieve by lifting the trophy on Sunday for what would be a fourth consecutive year.

“He makes you play differently — well, not differently, but in a way that he likes,” Sinner said.

Norrie edged David Goffin of Belgium 3-6, 7-5, 2-6, 6-3, 7-5, earning the right to make his Grand Slam semi-final debut.

“I can’t enjoy it too much now,” said Norrie, 26, who was born in South Africa to British parents, grew up in New Zealand and played tennis at Texas Christian University. “Get ready for Novak in a few days.”

Djokovic, 35, of Serbia pulled off his seventh career comeback in a match in which he trailed by two sets – he last did so in the 2021 French Open final against Stefanos Tsitsipas – and improved to 37-10 in five sets. That includes a 10-1 mark in matches that go the distance at Wimbledon, including nine straight wins; the only loss came in 2006.

“He’s been in this situation many times,” said Sinner, 20. “It really helps.”

Tuesday’s game brought Sinner’s total of major quarter-final appearances to three, exactly 50 less than Djokovic’s.

Sinner has shown huge potential, reaching the quarter-finals at the 2020 French Open before losing to Rafael Nadal and the 2022 Australian Open before losing to Tsitsipas. As for the grass? Sinner was 0-4 until last week. But he won No. 1 at Wimbledon by knocking out three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka and then beating two seeds: No. 20 John Isner and No. 5 Carlos Alcaraz.

With his wide wingspan and a Djokovic-style ability to slide into shots, the 6-foot-2 Sinner reaches balls that seem out of reach and is able to respond with considerable power. This allows him to lengthen rallies and make even an accomplished baseliner like Djokovic do the extra work to earn a point.

On Tuesday, Sinner won a set and a break when Djokovic delivered a long backhand then dropped his head. Sinner broke again for 5-2, and soon enough, an hour and a half later, was one set of the biggest triumph of his fledgling career.

Before the start of the third, Djokovic headed to the locker room for a bathroom break, just like he did at Roland Garros against Tsitsipas 13 months ago.

“You approach those particular situations when you’re two sets a little more calmly, a little more confident,” Djokovic said, “with more self-confidence.”

When play resumed, Djokovic was much better than he had been.

“Two different matches,” he said.

After 19 unforced errors in the first two sets, he committed 14 in the last three. After being broken four times in straight sets, he won his 13 service games until the end.

It also became more and more lively. Djokovic clenched his fist and screamed after being broken twice to move to a 3-0 advantage after 20 minutes in the third set.

“He was dictating more,” Sinner said.

After landing on his stomach following a slide that turned into a split on a backhand in the fifth set, Djokovic spread his arms wide like a kid pretending to be an airplane – or a baseball umpire calling a runner safe.

Sinner’s game, meanwhile, took a dive. His form at the net, so good at the start, faltered: he made 14 of 17 trips forward in the first two sets but 8 of 18 in the last three. He grabbed a toe in the grass and twisted his left ankle on a forward thrust, falling and immediately grabbing his ankle; Djokovic climbed over the net to help Sinner up. It didn’t seem to affect Sinner’s footwork though.

Djokovic simply had a lot to deal with.