Thursday 14 December 2017

Unstoppable Djokovic edges one stepcloser to a childhood dream

Ian Chadband

Novak Djokovic threw himself on to his back in blind ecstasy, before kneeling down to kiss the Centre Court turf, his mind a blur of emotions and memories about a little kid battering a tennis ball around in a Belgrade war zone all those years ago.

"Definitely one of the most important days of my life, you remember all your career, all your childhood, everything you worked for that now comes true," he said, and who could blame him after two of his life's ambitions had been realised in one moment -- a place in the Wimbledon final and his ascension to the honoured position of being the world's No 1 tennis player?

Yet, even amid all his whirling happiness following his magnificent triumph over France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Djokovic understood his joy would count for nothing if he does not underline his new pre-eminence by winning tomorrow's final against Rafael Nadal, the man he now succeeds atop the rankings.

"Of course, for the No 1 spot to really mean something, I have to now win the title," he said. "It's something I've always dreamed of."

Frankly, there looks not a single danger of him being deflected in this ambition now, because Djokovic chose a devastating moment to remind us why he is the first man other than Roger Federer or Nadal in the past seven years to sit atop the tennis world. Even given Nadal's unquestioned greatness, again evident in his pummelling of Andy Murray, it still feels as if Djokovic is now the man to beat. Here, he looked every inch the colossus who has this year looked the only player to have found Nadal's measure, defeating the Spaniard four times in succession, including twice on clay.

Tsonga threw everything at Djokovic, refused to lie down even when being outplayed and offered up moments of wizardly resistance but, unlike Federer who buckled under the 12th seed's all-or-nothing comeback assault, there never really felt like a moment that the Serb was not in command in this entertaining 7-6 6-2 6-7 6-3 triumph over three hours.

And is it now his destiny to win the title which always fuelled his dreams, the one crown which he says he wants to hold more than any other?

The thought of that distant emerald lawn he had seen as a little boy glued to the TV always did drive Djokovic on. "It's just the tournament that I watched first," he reflected. "The first time I saw anything related to tennis was when I was four or five and I remember always Wimbledon being the one."

"I think every child has a dream of becoming something in his life. We live from those dreams. I started in the mountains in a very small place and then continued in Belgrade when tennis wasn't popular and we were going through some really difficult periods with our country having wars.

"So it wasn't easy to hold that desire and really believe in yourself. But I always did and the people close to me did. To reach this point is something really special."

Tsonga, whose occasional waves of brilliance can crush everything in their path, was simply not allowed to ride another one because of the exceptional quality of Djokovic.

With Tsonga offering mercurial brilliance too, we were treated to the most dizzyingly splendid rallies of the entire tournament, crazy, hilarious diving interludes around the net with both players hurling themselves about, trying and succeeding in recovering volleys at full stretch.

After losing one of these incredible rallies, Djokovic could only applaud Tsonga, who just beamed and held his arms out towards his Royal Box admirers. Ultimately, though, the Frenchman was the one bowing. Make no mistake, reckoned Tsonga, Djokovic was now a worthy No 1. How could anyone beat him in the final? "They need to run more than him and faster. So it is difficult," he smiled.

Too right. So far this season, only Federer has managed to achieve the trick in the Roland Garros semis and, even then, it was partly down to the Serb having looked so uncomfortable in his movement on the slippery clay.

Yesterday's victory was Djokovic's 47th win of the year, against that one solitary defeat. Even after some late, desperate bravura shotmaking from Tsonga to eke out the third set in a tie-break, the No 2 seed responded by winning the first eight points of the fourth. There was no way back.

Nadal may have been equally emphatic but he now finds himself facing a potential nemesis. And Djokovic knows it. "This year we have played so many finals and important matches and even though it's a different surface, I believe I can win against him again," he shrugged.

So it may not be the final Britain had craved but it could be yet one of the true Church Road classics, between Wimbledon's monarch and the man who would be king. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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