Saturday 14 December 2019

Novak Djokovic survives scare with Cilic to book semi-final with Grigor Dimitrov

Serbia's Novak Djokovic celebrates beating Croatia's Marin Cilic
Serbia's Novak Djokovic celebrates beating Croatia's Marin Cilic

Novak Djokovic booked his sixth Wimbledon semi-final appearance and a showdown with Andy Murray's conqueror Grigor Dimitrov by edging a five-set battle with Marin Cilic.

The top seed prevailed 6-1 3-6 6-7 (4/7) 6-2 6-2 to cement his status as the hot tournament favourite after Bulgaria's Dimitrov saw off defending champion Murray.

The 27-year-old has missed just one grand slam semi-final in the last 17, but continues his quest to improve his record of just one victory in his last six major finals.

Until this match, Djokovic's biggest problem had been recovering from a heavy fall in his routine third-round victory over France's Gilles Simon.

The 2011 champion feared he had dislocated his left shoulder and would have to abandon his All England Club campaign, only to discover the popping noise he heard on impact caused minimal damage.

Czech battler Radek Stepanek had proved the only opponent to claim a set from the fuss-free Serbian on his straightforward run to the last eight.

World number 29 Cilic offered a stern examination, once he found his bearings - but even though Djokovic never found full flow, he still located enough poise to step into the final four.

This match was as much Boris Becker against Goran Ivanisevic as Djokovic taking on Cilic, the respective coaches renewing old court rivalries from the cheap seats.

Both mentors have battled to toughen their charges' mental strength: Cilic showed admirable tenacity to shrug off a poor first set, but it was Djokovic's focus that held.

Nerves nearly paralysed Cilic from the outset, as he struggled to settle into the occasion.

The first set whizzed by in a blur, with the 25-year-old fighting a losing battle for control of his faculties.

Limp returns, wayward serves and a glut of unforced errors gifted Djokovic control.

When Ivanisevic won Wimbledon in 2001, he played on the idea of having a host of personas, including '911 Goran'.

Facing an emergency of his own, Cilic might have recalled Ivanisevic's pre-match instruction to "play like a real man".

Somehow Cilic managed to still both nerve and hand in the famous fashion of his mentor and coach, and give the top seed a real contest.

The Croatian saved two immediate break points in the second set, helping to smooth those frazzled edges.

Confidence, big serve and power line-shots reaffirmed, Cilic then converted his first break point of the match for a 3-1 lead.

Try as Djokovic might, he was unable to overturn the deficit, his opponent and friend serving out the set solidly to level the match.

Cilic's resolve had hardened to such an extent that he fended off six break points across two separate games in the third set.

A vital break to lead 6-5 left him serving for the set, only for Djokovic to wrestle immediate parity and set up a tie-break.

While Djokovic was expecting to turn the tide, Cilic stayed relaxed, forced enough openings - and swiped the breaker to lead the match two sets to one.

Losing patience with his own shortcomings and the course of the clash, Djokovic stormed into control of the fourth set.

Two straight breaks secured a 5-2 lead, with the Serbian able to serve out the set unencumbered.

Rejuvenated Djokovic started the final set as he had the fourth, claiming an immediate break - another jab into the midriff of Cilic's resolve.

Cilic denied Djokovic the double break he enjoyed in the fourth set to scramble a foothold at 2-1 - only to hand his opponent that very luxury four games later.

Djokovic then produced a routine service game to secure victory, and that last-four battle with 11th seed Dimitrov.

Djokovic hailed his next opponent Dimitrov as this summer's form man on grass, after the 23-year-old added Murray's scalp to his Queen's Club trophy.

"It's a big win for Grigor: he's on fire these last six months, winning tournaments on different surfaces," said Djokovic.

"He's won at Queen's, he's unbeaten on grass this year, and he's the player to beat.

"I've seen that (Murray's loss). The first three sets we played the points and we could hear the crowd.

"Somehow you can hear Centre Court from Court One, and it was distracting to be honest for both of us - but no excuses."

Djokovic admitted frustrations with his own form, but was at least relieved to raise the tempo for a victorious finale.

"I knew Marin would play aggressively," he said.

"I had a couple of chances to break him early in the second and didn't use that.

"It was a pretty even match in the first few sets, but in the last two I felt like I regained control.

"He raised his game but I allowed him to come back into the match.

"I allowed him to step in, he used his opportunities.

"I was frustrated, because I allowed him to come back into the match and gain control of the rallies.

"But again, I managed to find the right pace when I needed it."

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