Even by his own Himalayan standards this year, standards that up to the French Open included a 43-match winning streak, Novak Djokovic scaled new heights yesterday.
In a thrillingly entertaining match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the Serb produced the best grass-court tennis of his career to reach tomorrow's men's singles final, and in so doing, irrespective of how it unfolds, to go top of the world. When the new ATP tour rankings are released on Monday, Djokovic will be world No 1.
It was certainly not hard to believe, in the Centre Court sunshine yesterday, that we were watching the best player on the planet. If the Serb had needed his A-game to overcome the pesky Australian teenager Bernard Tomic in the quarter-final, here he found his A-plus game, at first matching, then overwhelming, then containing and finally again overwhelming the relentlessly competitive Frenchman, with a breathtaking display of agility, shot-making and sheer resolve. After suffering the indignity of a break in the opening game of his fifth consecutive Grand Slam semi-final, the second seed finally prevailed 7-6, 6-2, 6-7, 6-3 in a shade over three hours. An inaugural Wimbledon final is his just reward, but not even Dijana Djokovic, the 24-year-old's proud mum, having watched at times through her fingers, could claim that Tsonga deserves to be going home.
The 12th seed played, for the most part, an equal role in what at times was more akin to exhibition tennis. In fact it was the excellence of the Frenchman, whose five wins in their previous seven encounters did not, unfortunately for him, include their five-setter in the final of the 2008 Australian Open, that forced Djokovic to such an unprecedented level. The first set, in particular, was a glorious departure from the kind of slugfest in which the watching Goran Ivanisevic used to specialise, despite the Tsonga serve clocking 138mph.
With Tsonga already a break up at 3-2, we were treated to probably the most dramatic rally yet seen in these championships, both men swooping, soaring and diving in a display that would have graced an aviary, let alone a tennis court. On clinching the point, and with it the game, with quite astounding agility, Tsonga triumphantly raised both arms to the delighted spectators. It is not just the 26-year-old's looks that evoke the young Muhammad Ali, but also his instincts for showmanship. To call him a crowd-pleaser is to describe the 75-year-old Gary Player, also in the royal box yesterday, as pretty keen on keeping fit. The veteran South African golfer still claims to perform 1,000 press-ups every day.
That made one preposterously fit Player and two ludicrously fit players in the famous arena. Tsonga's athleticism is extraordinary enough, and belies his burly build. But nobody – not Rafa Nadal, not Andy Murray, not Roger Federer – moves around a tennis court as quickly as Djokovic. He sometimes seems to be attached to the end of a strong length of elastic, so rapidly does he get from the baseline to the net, and Tsonga soon worked out that however exquisitely he feathered his drop-shots, his opponent would reach them. His solution to this was not to stop playing them, but to scurry in after them in the hope of parrying Djokovic's next thrust. It made for several more points that were enough to convert the most resolute tennis agnostic, indeed at times Tsonga might have been auditioning for the chance to solve his compatriot Arsène Wenger's goalkeeping problems. Perhaps swept up in the excitement, the big Frenchman blew his chance to win the first set with what looked like an untimely surge of adrenaline. At 5-4 he delivered – and netted – a 133mph second serve, yielding a break point which Djokovic duly claimed.
With the Tsonga backhand beginning to show signs of vulnerability, Djokovic won the tie-break and then eased into a two-set lead. At that point his passage to the final looked assured, at least until you recalled that the man on the other side of the net had overturned the same formidable deficit in the quarter-final, becoming the first player ever in a Grand Slam to bounce back from two sets down against Federer. Could he repeat the feat against Djokovic? It seemed unthinkable when the second seed went a break up in the third set, yet Tsonga broke straight back. Then Djokovic broke again. Curtains, surely? Mais non. Tsonga broke back to force another tie-break, in which he saved two match points and then captured the set, a fight-back rapturously received by the crowd, who had manifestly taken the engaging Frenchman to their hearts. A fourth set meant a longer wait for the start of the Murray v Nadal match, yet it was plainly what everyone wanted. Andy who?
In the fourth set, Tsonga continued to test the brilliance of the putative world No 1, but Djokovic was more than up to the task, kissing the turf with delight when it was all over. He arrived at these championships without playing a warm-up event on grass, which is unusual, but Bjorn Borg, also in the royal box yesterday, never did so. And he won Wimbledon five times.
The prospect of getting his hands on the trophy for the first time, and win or lose of being anointed world No 1, said Djokovic afterwards, represents one of the most important achievements of his life. "When you know you're going to be the best in the world and you're reaching the finals of your favourite tournament, it's something special," he said.
He paid tribute to his opponent. "He's a player that feeds from the energy of the crowd," he added. "He can really be unstoppable at times."
Tsonga was philosophical about his failure to end a drought almost as long as Britain's in the men's singles here, for not since Yvon Petra in 1946 has a Frenchman won Wimbledon. He reckoned that he had played well enough to beat any other player except one. "He played unbelievable," he said. "He was everywhere."Reuse content