Wednesday 21 February 2018

Djokovic eases past master of backhand with unstoppable show of force

Djokovic punches the air as he puts away the final game to love with a magnificent flourish of serving
Djokovic punches the air as he puts away the final game to love with a magnificent flourish of serving

Jim White

With a relentless certainty that was at times brutal, Novak Djokovic advanced to his fourth Wimbledon final, crushing Richard Gasquet 7-6, 6-4, 6-4. With a punch of the fists and a kiss to the heavens he acknowledged the crowd as he put away the final game to love with a magnificent flourish of serving.

But the truth was, he had lost them long before; with that victory the Serb had simultaneously crushed the hopes of those gathered around the court. They had overwhelmingly backed the Frenchman, wished to see aestheticism prevail over efficiency.

This was the auld alliance in a modern setting. On a day when a Scot was going for broke, a Frenchman was being cheered to the rafters as the warm-up act. And rightly so: as an advert for the way in which tennis might be played, his performance this week has been unequivocal.

A backhand winner in just the second game was so sumptuous it induced a kind of collective purr normally only heard when Roger Federer is in the vicinity.


Like compatriot Jean van de Velde, however, there has long been a suspicion about Gasquet that, given the choice, he would rather produce a thing of beauty than a winner.

Which explains his record in big tournaments, one which reported that he had never taken a set off Djokovic in three previous Grand Slam meetings.

Now in his fourth, his fastest serve no more aggressive than Serena Williams's, he was almost entirely dependent on his trademark single-handed backhand, his winners from that side outnumbering those from his forehand by more than three to one. However, it soon became apparent that one shot would never be enough. Particularly as Djokovic responded in kind with play almost as attractive as that of the Frenchman.

As Gasquet kept in touch in the first set, breaking the champion's serve immediately after his own had been breached, it looked as if an epic might be in store. Then they reached the first-set tiebreak. This was Gasquet's chance. Instead Djokovic applied the accelerator pedal, easing away to win 7-2.

"The first set was really close," the champion admitted. "I thought Richard played some really good tennis, especially from the backhand side. But winning the first-set tiebreak was psychologically very helpful."

By midway through the third set, Gasquet looked drained. Djokovic turned the screw with an incredible drop at the net. From there, victory was but a service game away.

And now, after bettering the master of the backhand, in the final he will confront the greatest tennis aesthete of all time, Federer. What a prospect that is.

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