Only three men have pushed Novak Djokovic to a fifth set during the Serbian’s 33-match Wimbledon win streak: Rafael Nadal in the 2018 semi-finals, Roger Federer in the epic 2019 final and… Jannik Sinner in last year’s quarters.
While Djokovic never trailed in the set score on those occasions against his Big 3 rivals, he found himself two-sets-to-love down against Sinner last year on Centre Court before storming back for a five-set win. Can the Italian change the outcome on Friday if he finds himself in a similar position this year on the London lawns?
“First of all, you have to go up two sets to love,” he joked after beating Roman Safiullin to reach his first major semi-final.
“It’s going to be a completely different match than last year. He knows me better, as I know him better also. It’s going to be also a little bit tactical. In the other way, it is also a little bit mental. If you play against Novak, it’s always tough to play here, especially in Grand Slams.”
Prior to 2023, Sinner had reached the quarter-finals once at each major but never progressed beyond that stage. In three of those instances, he was beaten by the eventual champion.
Is the 21-year-old ready to become a major champion himself? Djokovic seems to think so.
“He’s playing on a very high level,” the Serbian said of his opponent. “He likes to play on grass. He likes to play on quick surfaces because he likes to be aggressive and take control of the point. From both forehand and backhand, he’s smashing the ball really, really hard, trying to be the one that is going to dictate the point from early on. I know his game well.
“He’s so young, so of course it’s expected that he’s going to improve. He is improving, no doubt, I think with the serve, he’s been serving better. On grass, it obviously makes a difference. He’s a very complete player.”
— ATP Tour (@atptour) July 11, 2023
But for all the praise, the World No. 2 left no doubt that he expects to win. He fought off inspired efforts from Hubert Hurkacz and Andrey Rublev in the previous two rounds, going four sets in both victories. After beating Rublev, he spoke about how he relishes being the man to beat at Wimbledon, where he is seeking his fifth straight men’s singles title and a record-tying eighth overall.
Djokovic may be playing even better than he was last year in London, having entered the grass-court major halfway to a calendar-year Grand Slam this year. But Sinner has raised his game, too.
“For sure physically I have improved. I’m much stronger. I can stay on court for many hours without suffering,” he said, discussing the improvements in his game since his previous meeting with Djokovic 12 months ago.
“I think also game-wise or tennis-wise I feel better. If I have to play the slice, I can play it now without thinking. Before was always a little bit different. I can go to the net knowing that I have good volleys. I have some good things now in my game, and hopefully I can use it in the right way.”
Sinner called facing Djokovic at a Grand Slam tournament “for sure one of the toughest, if not the toughest, challenge”, but the Italian has plenty of big-match experience in his own corner. He is a seven-time tour-level champion and has reached two ATP Masters 1000 finals, both in Miami (2021, 2023).
A first major crown would see Sinner rise from his current career-high Pepperstone ATP Ranking of No. 8 to World No. 4 — though a runner-up finish would not change his standing. Djokovic, in addition to bidding for a record-extending 24th Grand Slam men’s singles title, is also seeking to reclaim the top spot in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings this week.
The Serbian could have that distinction secured by Friday night, should a win against Sinner be coupled with a semi-final defeat for World No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz against Daniil Medvedev. But if it is to be Djokovic vs. Alcaraz in Sunday’s final, the championship matchup would double as a straight shootout for No. 1.