Djokovic survives Dimitrov to reach Wimbledon final
Novak Djokovic ensured Grigor Dimitrov's uprising against tennis' established order was short lived as the top seed battled through four punishing sets in the Centre Court sun to reach his third Wimbledon final since 2011.
Queen's champion Dimitrov had served warning he was ready to break his grand slam duck after turfing defending champion Andy Murray out in straight sets in the last eight, but his nine-match winning streak was brought to an end on Friday with Djokovic eventually triumphing 6-4 3-6 7-6(2) 7-6(7) in three hours and two minutes.
Djokovic took the first set in ruthless fashion, claiming the only break point before closing it out. He took another another early break in the second but the world No.13 turned the match on its head by winning five games from 3-1 down to level.
A tense third was taken to a tie-break and Djokovic eased through before breaking for 2-1 in the fourth after Dimitrov double faulted three times in a row. Dimitrov broke back immediately, however, but missed a set point at 5-4 before fluffing three more in another tie-break with Djokovic putting away his second match point.
Dimitrov may have fallen short on this occasion, but his time will surely come sooner than later, if this performance is anything to go by. On the back of his remarkable grass-court season, the Bulgarian will break into the top 10 of the world rankings for the first time in his career next week.
For now it is still about Djokovic. He has the chance to bounce back immediately from his French Open final agony, where Rafael Nadal came back from a set down to claim his ninth Roland Garros crown.
The world No.2 will be desperate to halt a worrying trend that has seen him lose five of his last six major finals. Djokovic admitted he had appointed Boris Becker for that precise purpose - the pair will hope it is second-time lucky after the disappointment of Paris.
"Considering I've lost my last couple of grand slam finals, and all these matches I could've won, I'm looking forward to it," said Djokovic. "It's a big challenge, a big match. Whoever I play, I have to be on top of my game. This is Wimbledon's final, the biggest we have in the sport."
For the past 12 grand slams, Djokovic has either won the tournament or lost to the eventual winner. In his way on Sunday will be either Roger Federer or Milos Raonic.
Djokovic admitted he had been sloppy again, as in his quarter-final win over Marin Cilic, but was quick to laud Dimitrov's performance after the match.
"It was the semi-finals of Wimbledon, playing against a future star and he's already a top player," said Djokovic. "Winning against Murray in the quarters, he deserves respect. It was his first [grand slam] semi-final. It was a tough match overall. The fourth set could've gone either way. I started well with a set and a break, a couple of break points for a double break. But again I allowed my opponent to come back. I'm just glad to reach another Wimbledon final.
"He has quality shots, especially the running forehand, he has a great touch. He's aggressive when he's defending. He's improved immensely in the last six to eight months. You can see by his results. It's a good win for me. Hopefully the crowd enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to the Championship match."
"It's tough to swallow at the moment," said Dimitrov. "All credit to Novak, he deserved to win in the end. I'm not satisfied with the result but I have to keep my head up and take the positives out of all of these weeks. I had the momentum at one point but it didn't go my way today. I came on the court to win. My goal is to keep proving every week I can be at the top."
Dimitrov was looking to hand Djokovic his first defeat to a player outside the top 10 at a grand slam since his 2010 Wimbledon semi-final against Tomas Berdych.
However, he got off to a poor start. Dimitrov's fourth unforced error, as he sent a backhand long, handed Djokovic the first break of the match and a 3-2 lead in the opening set, which the top seed closed out in 27 minutes.
The unforced errors continued from Dimitrov at the start of the second. With his first-service percentage dropping to 63 percent, Djokovic attacked the second serve and Dimitrov sent a couple of shots long - one via a net-cord - to hand the world No.2 the early break for 2-1.
Two misses from Djokovic gave Dimitrov a break-back point straight away but a baseline slip allowed the Serb to pick his spot before he held.
Dimitrov's backhand continued to misfire and Djokovic was handed another break point. But Dimitrov bailed himself out with a 130mph ace down the T and wrapped up the game.
Dimitrov then finally got his first break of the match, wasting his first chance by firing well wide as Djokovic charged towards the net but lucking out as the Serb buried a forehand on the next point.
Two more break points arrived for Dimitrov on Djokovic's next serve, with the pair trading drop shots before Djokovic's cross-court shot landed wide. Suddenly, Dimitrov was serving to level the match and took his second set point.
Having changed his shoes in the fourth set on his way to victory against Cilic on Wednesday, Djokovic had his physio Miljan Amanovic dash down to the court with a new pair as he repeated the trick in the third against Dimitrov.
The switch appeared to pay immediate dividends again - Djokovic saved the first break point of the third set at 3-3 with a backhand that just crept over the net before holding.
Djokovic then built a 15-30 lead on Dimitrov's next service but dumped a backhand return and shanked a forehand wide, tossing his racquet up in the air in frustration before Dimitrov held.
The top seed forced his opponent to serve to stay in the third and he rose to the challenge, winning a sublime rally with both players ending up face down on the grass at the net - the watching Becker would have been proud.
A love service from Djokovic threw the gauntlet down to Dimitrov again and he duly responded. With a tie-breaker required to separate them, Dimitrov netted to hand Djokovic the first mini-break and a 2-1 lead. A 15th ace of the afternoon from Djokovic brought up 4-1 and a fifth double fault from Dimitrov made it 5-2. The Serb then took his first of four set points.
Dimitrov retreated for a bathroom break but double faulted three times to cough up three break points in his second service game of the fourth. Djokovic needed just one as he seemingly struck a significant blow.
Djokovic then saved a break point but couldn't repeat the trick, Dimitrov sliding for a cross-court forehand that Djokovic could only return wide. Dimitrov then saved two break points to hold for a 3-2 lead in the fourth.
Next it was Djokovic's turn to become the escape artist, a spinning forehand out wide leaving his opponent on the floor and a smash at the net taking it to deuce. The Serb saved two more break points for a vital hold.
With Dimitrov suddenly getting to everything, though, an enormous serve from Djokovic saved set point at 5-4 and the Serb let out a primal roar. Another Dimitrov slip left him face down in the dirt and Djokovic picked him off before closing with another roar.
Another tie-break was needed and the pair traded early mini-breaks before Dimitrov went 4-2 up. A simple backhand volley at the net gave Dimitrov three set points and two slips in as many seconds saw him blow the first. Djokovic defended the second and Dimitrov planted an attempted forehand pass into the net on the third to leave the score at 6-6.
A Dimitrov double fault then gave Djokovic match point, but the Bulgarian kept himself alive with Djokovic failing to put away two volleys at the net.
Dimitrov, fittingly, then found himself on the turf one last time, though. He rose to his feet gingerly and served to stay in the match, but a foray to the net was picked off by Djokovic.