“There’s no sinner like a young saint.” – 17th century writer Aphra Behn
He’s a sinner who has saintly shots, an Italian who’s swagger-free, and, except for some modest fist pumps, he offers few signs of bravado.
Jannik Sinner had just tamed the biggest server in tennis, John Isner, and upset the biggest prospect in the ATP these days, Carlos Alcaraz, but certainly he couldn’t beat the six-time Wimbledon champion, Novak Djokovic. The 20-year-old had never won a main draw grass court match before this year’s Wimbledon – and he’d never beaten a Top Five player.
Plus, Djokovic has an Italian thing going. He beat Matteo Berrettini to win last year’s Wimbledon and he came back from two sets down to beat Lorenzo Musetti at the 2021 French Open. And the brightest spot for Nole during this turbulent year was lifting the Master’s trophy in Rome – and he speaks Italian beautifully. His agent and his PR person are Italian. His wife got her masters in Milan, and Nole’s an AC Milan fan. He’d often practiced with Sinner. Still, not surprisingly, Jannik came out tight.
Novak had a chance to go up two breaks. But he double faulted twice and muffed a couple of drop shots. Sinner calmed down, settled his nerves and began to dominate. The Serb’s level dropped and he looked to his box: “What’s going on?” Sinner was unleashing his strong serve and deep groundies. In the zone, he displayed an ascendent, “Never mind that I’m only 20 years old” confidence.
The pressure was clear – Wimbledon’s prohibitive favorite was on the ropes. If Nole didn’t win here, he might not play a Slam for 11 months. The three-time defending champion who was on a 25-match Wimbledon streak was shaky. His forehands flew long, his dropshots fell short, his decision making was suspect.
Jannik out-hit, out-scrambled and out-thought the Serb. He dominated in long rallies – he was beating Novak at his own game.
Once again a Grand Slam crowd was howling loud for Novak’s foe. He stared at his strings, and after 1:33 the Serb was staring at a 7-5, 6-2 deficit and staring at himself in a courtside bathroom. Notre Dame’s famous coach Knute Rockne would have been proud of the Serb. He gave himself a pep talk. Nole told the media that it may sound fake, but affirmations “reanimate yourself.”
Djokovic came back on court and was more aggressive, playing first-strike tennis. He broke at love early in the third set, and everything changed. He won the next two sets. Nole was now in his 42nd fifth set at Grand Slams. He had won 15 of his last 17. And today his steely resolve was clear.
At first the Italian, who was playing his first ever Slam quarterfinal, had nothing to lose. Then, said Novak, “Sinner had a lot to lose when he was two sets to love up. I could feel that mentally with him.”
The Serb recalled coming back from two sets down to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in the 2021 French Open final. Historians recalled he’d come back three times at Slams from being down two match points against Roger Federer.
Centre Court felt the surge of the Serbian’s will. “By that confidence,” said BBC commentator Tim Henman, “you know he has belief.” Few in the game are better mid-match managers than Nole. Drive and resilience are his thing.
Janko Tipsarevic once told Inside Tennis that Djokovic’s greatness was not because he came from poverty. Rather it came because “he wants to be the best of all time and nothing else and is willing to do whatever it takes…Nothing else satisfies his hunger. You saw this with Lebron, Kobe, Ronaldo and Muhammed Ali. If they are not the best, they wanted to commit suicide.”
At one point Novak sprinted five steps and blasted an astonishing, “only Nole could do that” winner.
After being demolished by Stefi Graf 6-0, 6-2 in the 1988 Wimbledon semis, Pam Shriver noted, “The turning point in the match was when we walked on the court.”
Today, after his 5-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 win, Nole claimed, “The toilet break was the turning point…The inner fight is always the biggest fight that you have. But once you win that, the external circumstances are more likely to go in your favor.” Novak, who along with Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer is seeking his fourth straight Wimbledon, said he was “just happy to be through”, and he was feeling “happiness come, love, fulfillment, pride. I absolutely love this court. This is the most important court in my career…This court inspired me to take a tennis racket in my hand when I was five. Every time I step on the court, the love affair continues.”