When Novak Djokovic stepped on to Centre Court on Tuesday afternoon, he had not lost on its grass in just over 10 years; 43 consecutive matches, 3,655 days. That’s 13 consecutive pregnancies. It’s the average life span of a goat. It’s almost as long as Rafa Nadal takes between points. It is, frankly, absurd and one of the greatest achievements in sport.
Well, make that 3,656 days. Because, by the time the seven-time Wimbledon winner was returning the crowd’s applause and shaking the umpire’s hand, his record stood intact. He beat the No 7 seed, Andrey Rublev, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-3 in an extremely high‑quality match of multiple extended rallies and showmanship.
The Russian, a player with a huge first serve and dangerous forehand, has exploded into form, winning his first Masters 1000 title in an emotional Monte Carlo final in April. But he has always found Djokovic a tricky competitor. In the four times the two have played, the Serb has won three times in straight sets. Rublev did, however, beat an out-of-sorts Djokovic on the latter’s home turf (or home clay) in Belgrade.
This quarter-final was a competitive bout. The first real moment of jeopardy came in the sixth game, Djokovic earning two break points off a back-behind forehand. The Serb showed his frustration when his opponent saved both, and then another, with a 96mph forehand. A lengthy rally full of zipping groundstrokes which whistled over the net, bullet‑fast backhands and rapid forecourt reflexes wowed the crowd.
At 4-4 it was the reigning champion’s turn to be in trouble, as a smacked return from Rublev brought his own chance to break. He took it, to lead 5-4, with a sumptuous whipped forehand into the ad court. The Russian, who with his sharp features and loosely tied head scarf has the look of Willem Dafoe – if Willem Dafoe played Rambo – pumped his fist. There was a brief jitter on his serve at 30-30 but he wrapped it up 6-4 when Djokovic hit the ball into the net.
Then the match turned on its head, as it so often does when Djokovic is behind. Both players had multiple break points in the early stages, but only the winner of 23 majors took his, to lead 3-0. That old foe of Rublev’s, the double fault, had reared its head. An exquisite forehand passing shot into the deuce court brought up an almost immediate break-back point, but the 25-year-old couldn’t capitalise, and soon he exchanged his dialled-in play with unforced errors. That other achilles heel of his: slumps in concentration. The 36-year-old took the second set with a second break and a minimum of fuss, 6-1.
And just as it seemed Djokovic would serve out the third set with ease, Rublev found the reserves to bring up multiple break points, the pick an incredible passing shot. He orchestrated the crowd to their feet with a wave of the hand. But the Serb held his nerve for the third set.
As the wind picked up, and with Djokovic two sets to one up, it felt the match could quickly blow away. It did, with Djokovic breaking early and then again, to finish in just shy of three hours.
In the post-match press conference the Russian spoke of his missed opportunities, especially in the third set. “When we played the long game at 5-4, I had so many chances. But I got tight,” he said, before declaring it still the best of the eight grand slam quarter-finals he has played.
For his part, Djokovic exuded confidence, both in the press room and on court. Of the players facing him, he said: “Everyone wants a scalp. But it ain’t gonna happen.” He then added a self-deprecating: “Very humble.”
In their semi-final on Friday Jannik Sinner – who took the opening two sets in their quarter-final last year, before the Italian fell victim to Djokovic’s legendary tenacity – will try to make it happen. Sinner, who earned his ticket into the semi-finals after beating Roman Safiullin in four sets, has looked hungry. But Djokovic will be ready, waiting. Those steely green eyes laser-focused on a new target: 3,659 days. And beyond.