A semi-final of Wagnerian length, split into two halves by an intermission for sleep, ended with a stirring ovation for one of tennis’s most captivating double acts. As this tournament had looked destined to resolve in the 39th enactment of Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal, it instead produced episode 52 of the Spaniard’s gruelling, grappling duel with Novak Djokovic. It would be fair to say, after a 5hr 17min dust-up of luminous quality and relentless intensity, that the alternative offered ample compensation.
In the end, it was Djokovic, the human backboard, who repelled Nadal’s fusillades to reach his first major final since the 2016 US Open. In the two intervening years, he has resembled a lost soul at times, beset by injuries and alleged difficulties in his personal life, but here he channelled every drop of his thou-shalt-not-pass defiance to achieve perhaps his most gratifying victory. Saluting theatrically to all four corners of the Centre Court crowd, he seemed every inch a man who had reclaimed his natural turf.
This match vaulted straight into the canon, standing comfortably alongside the six-hour Australian Open final of 2012 as a celebration of two masters of the defensive arts. When the match was suspended under the Friday night lights with Djokovic two sets to one ahead, the patrons protested bitterly. Few could have imagined that these two would emulate, let alone eclipse, the same standard on the resumption 14 hours later. Some of the final-set shot-making, with Nadal curling banana-shots around the net-post and Djokovic leathering returns like his life depended on it, was elegant enough to make even Vogue editor Anna Wintour, watching from behind her shades in the royal box, weak with happiness.
Djokovic made sure that Act II of an instant classic was conducted on his terms. Even with high-summer sunshine and temperatures of 28 degrees, the Serb insisted the match should be continued in the same environment as it began, with the roof closed.
The upshot was an on-court atmosphere akin to a greenhouse, with the airless humidity doing much for the tension but little for the comfort of 15,000 flustered ticket-holders, many fanning themselves in sync.
The Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex attend Wimbledon ladies' final day
For all the mutual respect expressed, Nadal made clear he was not overjoyed by the decision. As a player who has won 85 per cent of his matches outdoors, but only 68 per cent inside, he lobbied hard for the remainder of the semi-final to be fought out in the open. But Djokovic, as one of the world’s finest ever indoors players, having a 38-match winning streak in such conditions between 2012 and 2015, would not hear of it. And since it required both players to agree for the roof to be opened, he saw to it that it stayed shut.
Nadal, speaking in Spanish, emphasised that he did not want his sourness about that to overshadow the drama, but he left few doubts about his true feelings. “OK, we start indoors, after the referee decided at 7.30pm last night that he didn’t want to waste any more time,” he said. “But today, we could have played outdoors. This is an outdoor tournament. I don’t think it’s right.”
While neither player could claim any outright advantage in the willpower department, Djokovic arguably displayed the greater composure when it mattered most. Not to mention suppleness: when he strained every sinew to dig out one Nadal dropshot, it seemed like he might end up in the local hospital. “It was one of those moments where time stopped for me,” he smiled. “All my life, I’ve tried to take care of my body, getting in the optimal shape, so I can do these kinds of elastic things.”
Perhaps it was simply that Djokovic needed this win more. Where Nadal had nothing more to prove in his stunning resurgence to the world No 1 ranking, having won three of the five previous majors, his rival dropped out of the top 20 for the first time since 2006. But in this furnace, Djokovic brought a white-hot game.
For all his dismay at losing the fourth set, giving up two breaks, he was electrifying in the decider, finally disrupting Nadal at 9-8 in front, breaking to love as he forced the Spaniard into spraying a forehand wide. Resisting his more primal celebratory antics, he raised his hands to the sky in relief.
“I was very emotional after the match,” reflected Djokovic, who almost broke down in tears, during one BBC interview. “It has been a long 18 months for me, trying to overcome different obstacles. There were times of doubt, frustration, disappointment, where you are questioning whether you want to keep going. So, to be where I am now is quite, quite satisfying.”
Just one more barrier awaits, in the form of Kevin Anderson, the South African whose misfortune it was to endure a slugfest of record-breaking length against John Isner.
Although Djokovic joked that his feet were sore from all the running he did to outwit Nadal, the signs are that he has too much guile and variety not to capture a fourth Wimbledon title on Sunday afternoon.
Bruised by his period in the doldrums but by no means beaten, he is intent on writing his next chapter as tennis’s renaissance man.
Game, set and match! Djokovic defeats Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 10-8
Here we go again. Djokovic screams a backhand winner past Nadal and again he can see the finish line at 0-30. Nadal then stumbles and can't retrieve a Djokovic forehand. It's 0-40, three match points! Djokovic only needs one this time as Nadal pulls a forehand long. What a monumental effort from both players, but it's Djokovic who comes through after a 5hr 14 min epic. He will play Kevin Anderson tomorrow.
Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 9-8 Nadal* (*next server)
One of the many things that makes this so much more interesting than yesterday's match is that both players look vulnerable on serve. That said, this game is a comfortable one for Djokovic, who holds to 15 when Nadal misses a couple of returns.
Djokovic* 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 8-8 Nadal (*next server) - Nadal saves a match point and holds
Collector's item as Nadal misses a mid-court forehand to give Djokovic another glimmer of victory at 15-30. And then what a point that is! Both men are stretching every sinew to keep themselves alive, and finally it's Djokovic who cracks, allowing Nadal to step in and thunder away a smash for 30-30. He celebrates like he's won the tournament. But the joy is fleeting, as on the next point he pulls a backhand wide for 30-40! It's match point Djokovic! I don't believe that, Nadal has saved it with the most outrageous of drop shots! And he completes the hold with a clever body serve and an ace down the T. Incredible, absolutely incredible.
Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 8-7 Nadal* (*next server) - Djokovic saves three break points and holds
Chance here for Nadal at 15-30 after Djokovic nets a backhand. And a double fault gifts Nadal two break points at 15-40. Djokovic saves the first when a solid backhand forces Nadal into pulling a backhand wide, and he saves the second with an ace down the T. Moments later, Nadal has another break point after hitting a forehand winner that just kisses the back edge of the baseline. Nadal thinks he's done enough but Djokovic produces a wondrous forehand pass crosscourt. Djokovic exhorts the crowd to make some noise, possibly with an expletive thrown in. Djokovic then misses a few game points as Nadal digs in - the last of which he saves with a fizzing backhand pass. This is ridiculously tense. Djokovic finally holds as a Nadal return sails long.
We've played five hours now.
Djokovic* 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 7-7 Nadal (*next server)
Djokovic is two points from the final again, as Nadal pushes a backhand well long for 15-30. An excellent body serve has us at 30-30, prompting screams of anguish from Djokovic. He's even angrier after losing the next point when he's again snared by a body serve. An ace down the T seals the hold. Djokovic is going absolutely berserk.
Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 7-6 Nadal* (*next server)
No let up from Djokovic as he spears an ace out wide to wrap up a breezy hold to 15. We've been going 4hr 42 min.
Djokovic* 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-6 Nadal (*next server)
Djokovic misses an easy forehand on the first point but makes up for it with a blistering winner off that wing for 30-15. Nadal then seriously brings the heat on two ridiculous forehand winners to seal a hold to 15.
As you may remember from yesterday, there's no tie-break in the final set, so on we go.
Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-5 Nadal* (*next server)
Very solid serving game from Djokovic, as he holds to 15 with another pacy first serve that skids out of Nadal's hitting zone. Nadal will again serve to stay in the match, which I'll stop telling you as that'll be the case for all his remaining service games unless he can find the break.
Djokovic* 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 5-5 Nadal (*next server)
Big chance for Djokovic here as Nadal misses consecutive forehands to go down 0-30. That's six points in a row for Djokovic. A big Nadal serve reduces the deficit to 15-30, and Djokovic then misses a makeable backhand return for 30-30. Rafa then moves to 40-30 with a skidding ace out wide, before a service winner seals a gritty hold.
Clutch serving from both men.
Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 5-4 Nadal* (*next server) - Djokovic saves two break points and holds
Now it's Djokovic's turn to feel the heat, as he sprays a forehand wide for 15-30. He then drags another forehand wide, and it's two break points for Nadal at 15-40. Djokovic saves the first with a superlative, skidding ace out wide and then the second with a strong first serve that Nadal can only return into the net. Djokovic then digs out a quite brilliant hold with an angled backhand volley and then a wonderful backhand winner crosscourt.
Nadal will serve to stay in the match.
Djokovic* 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 4-4 Nadal (*next server) - Nadal saves a break point and holds
Oh dear, a double fault from Nadal gives Djokovic a real glimmer of a break at 15-30. A big serve draws a missed return for 30-30 before Rafa punches away an easy volley for 40-30. Nadal then pulls an attempted forehand pass wide, and it's deuce, Squeaky bum time. And it's about to get a whole lot squeakier as Nadal overcooks a forehand to present Djokovic with a break point. Nadal saves it with a rasping serve that Djokovic can only return into the net. Djokovic then thinks he's earned another break point but his opponent chases down a smash and fizzes a forehand winner down the line. What a point! And then another! Nadal produces a 99mph sledgehammer of an inside-out forehand winner to complete the hold.
Invigorating stuff on Centre Court. Unbelievable level from both men.
Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 4-3 Nadal* (*next server)
More steely serving from Djokovic, as a Nadal backhand flies long to seal a hold to 15. If Djokovic can break Nadal in the next game he'll be serving for a place in Sunday's final.
Novak lost 3 serve points in 4 games so far, Rafael 2 points in 3 games.
— José Morgado (@josemorgado) July 14, 2018
Djokovic* 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 3-3 Nadal (*next server)
Nadal enjoys an even more comfortable game in response, holding to love with an ace down the T. 4hr 10 min played, and it's two-sets all, three-games all.
Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 3-2 Nadal* (*next server)
When Djokovic gets the first serve in, Nadal is really struggling. An ace down the T wraps up a hold to 15, and the pressure swings back to Nadal.
Djokovic* 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 2-2 Nadal (*next server)
That is absolutely unbelievable. A rally that lasts about 30 shots ends with Nadal playing an inside out drop shot that sends his opponent sprawling to the floor in desperation. A more conventional forehand winner up the line then makes it 30-0, before a strong serve out wide and an ace out wide wrap up a love hold.
Rafa effectively won the game with that devastating first point.
Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 2-1 Nadal* (*next server)
Nadal is looking to attack Djokovic's second serve, but the Serb's groundstrokes are rock solid this game and he battles his way to 40-15. An ace then seals the hold to 15.
Djokovic is winning 73 per cent of his first serve points compared to just 53 per cent on his second serve, so it's critical he maintains his strong first serve percentage (currently at a very impressive 72 per cent).
Djokovic* 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 1-1 Nadal (*next server)
Nadal squeaked out of his last service game, but he looks edgy again here - double faulting to go down 15-30. Nadal responds with two big serves down the T to go up 40-30, and a third serve in that same spot wraps up the hold to 30.
Who are you backing here?
Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 1-0 Nadal* (*next server)
Important for Djokovic that he recovers well from the disappointment of losing the fourth set, and he does just that - scoring a love hold when Nadal nets a backhand.
Imagine if this ended 26-24.
For the third time, Nadal and Djokovic are going 5
The 1st two times:
2012 Australian Open F 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 Djokovic
Match length: 5 hours, 53 minutes
2013 French Open SF 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7 Nadal
Match length: 4 hours, 37 minutes
— Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) July 14, 2018
Djokovic* 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6 Nadal (*next server) - Fourth set Nadal
Oh my. Nadal is tight as a drum and chucks in a dreadful double to go down 0-40 and facing three break points. He saves the first as Djokovic can't retrieve a smash and the second goes begging when Djokovic nets a backhand. Can Novak make it third time lucky? No, he misses another backhand and it's deuce. Djokovic has converted just three of his 14 break points this match. How costly will these missed chances prove to be?
Nadal then moves to set point when he reads a Djokovic pass and volleys into the open court. And he takes it with an aced own the T! It was initially called out but a Hawk-Eye challenge showed it to be in.
We're heading for a fifth and final set!
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 14, 2018
Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-5 Nadal* (*next server) - Nadal breaks
Chance here for Nadal as Djokovic nets a backhand for 15-30. Nadal then draws another error to force two break points at 15-40. Djokovic saves the first with a big serve down the T - he's served extremely well this match - but he nets an easy forehand on the second, and that's the break!
Nadal will serve for the fourth set. Djokovic slams his foot with his racket repeatedly in frustration.
Djokovic* 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-4 Nadal (*next server)
Nadal stops the rot with a gritty hold to 30 when Djokovic sprays a backhand long.
Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-3 Nadal* (*next server)
What a momentum shift over the last few games. All of a sudden it's Djokovic whose bossing things. He bangs down an ace and feathers over an angled drop volley for 30-0. A long Nadal return then wraps up a hold to 15.
Three games in a row for Djokovic.
Djokovic* 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 2-3 Nadal (*next server) - Djokovic breaks back
Nadal's been getting to the net a lot so far today. It's generally worked well but an overhit volley presents Djokovic with an easy forehand pass for 15-30. Nadal then miscues a forehand and it's two break back points at 15-40. And another missed Nadal forehand presents Djokovic with the break back.
We're on serve again in the fourth set.
Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 1-3 Nadal* (*next server)
Great response from Djokovic. He gets on the board this set with a love hold of his own. No disrespect to Anderson and Isner, but blimey this is like watching a different sport from that fifth set.
Djokovic* 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 0-3 Nadal (*next server)
This is so good from Nadal. He holds to love with an absolutely sensational forehand half-volley winner from the baseline. Yes, you read that right. What a start from Rafa here.
Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 0-2 Nadal* (*next server) - Nadal breaks
A stinging forehand winner and biting backhand return take Nadal to 0-30, before a thrilling volley winner takes him to 15-40. It's two break points for Nadal, and he only needs one, bullying Djokovic into netting a backhand.
Dream start for Rafa here.
Djokovic* 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 0-1 Nadal (*next server) - Nadal saves two break points and holds
The Duchess of Sussex has settled into her seat, and it's and exceptional level from both players straight away. Djokovic draws a missed Nadal backhand for 30-30, but Rafa responds with a sensational forehand winner up the line to make it 40-30. Djokovic then forces deuce with a perfectly timed backhand return winner. And a gruelling 22-shot rally then ends with Nadal netting a backhand - it's break point Djokovic. Nadal saves it with a big serve down the T. Rafa then has two game points but Djokovic saves them both - the first with a statement forehand return winner. And when Nadal nets another backhand it's a second break point of the game for Djokovic. Can he take this one? No! Nadal saves it with a sensational crosscourt backhand and punched volley combo. After another deuce, Nadal finally holds.
That game took 16 minutes!
I have to say Grand Slams are outdoor events & totally disagree with the roof being closed today for the resumption of the Nadal vs Djokovic match. It was not closed for rain but for light yesterday.Both men have to agree to have the roof being open & Novak preferred closed.
— Greg Rusedski (@GregRusedski1) July 14, 2018
Nadal to serve first at the resumption.
Players are out
We will resume with Djokovic leading two sets to one.
The roof is closed
Absolutely extraordinary decision from the All England Club. The logic is that the match was played under the roof yesterday so it must also be played under the roof today.
What?! What about all the matches that start without a roof but then have the roof closed once it rains?
Anyway, despite it being 27 degrees outside and sunny that's where we are. It'll give Djokovic, who is the far better indoors player, a big advantage.
Djokovic vs Nadal volume 52, chapter 2
Hi everyone, here we go again. After the dreaded Wimbledon curfew put an end to this semi-final at 11pm last night, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will resume their match this afternoon as they bid for a place in Sunday’s final against Kevin Anderson.
Djokovic starts the resumption leading by two sets to one, having won a lengthy tie-break 11-9 late last night to post a 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 lead at the close of play.
Prior to the match restarting, have a read of this report of yesterday's play from our pals at the Press Association:
A record-breaking day at Wimbledon ended with the second men's semi-final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic falling foul of the 11pm curfew.
After the epic encounter between Kevin Anderson and John Isner, Nadal did not hit the first serve of his match until 8.09pm. That gave two players who have contested some of the most gruelling matches in tennis history less than three hours or the prospect of completing the match on Saturday.
In the end, and to the surprise of no one, they did not come close to finishing. And so, with Djokovic leading 6-4 3-6 7-6 (11/9), it became the first match since the Centre Court roof was added in 2009 to be stopped due to the strict curfew imposed by Merton Council to avoid disruption to local residents.
Andy Murray's third-round match against Marcos Baghdatis in 2012 pushed the limit to 11.02pm, and the time was exactly the same when Nadal netted a final backhand.
The announcement of the curtailment of play was greeted with understandable disappointment by the crowd, the vast majority of whom had stayed as a contest more than worthy of a Wimbledon final played out in front of them.
But only one of these men can move through to take on Anderson on Sunday, and they will resume on Saturday, when ticket holders for the women's final will get an unexpected treat.
The question since his meek loss to Sam Querrey here two years ago had been when would tennis see the real Djokovic again. The answer was now.
Djokovic gives Nadal a challenge no other player can. Pinning the Serbian in his backhand corner, Nadal's number one tactic, only plays to Djokovic's strength, and his speed and ability to not just soak up pace but send it back with interest left his opponent looking rushed.
Nadal also had the near five-hour match against Juan Martin del Potro on Wednesday in his legs and, after saving two break points in the fifth game, it was no surprise to see Djokovic move 4-3 ahead before serving out the set to love.
Only seven of their previous 51 meetings had been won by the player who lost the opening set, so it was a major boost to Djokovic's hopes, but he knew when he failed to take any of three break points early in the second that he had given Nadal a way back in.
Djokovic recovered from a poor service game with an excellent returning one to get back to 2-3 but Nadal's forehand was at its snarling best and he broke again before fending off more break points to level the match.
With the time approaching 10pm, that made it highly unlikely there would be a winner on Friday, and both players knew how important that third set was likely to be.
The momentum was with Nadal but Djokovic's serve, which was so disrupted by the elbow problems that prompted him finally to have surgery in February, kept him just about out of danger.
A stunning tie-break was a fitting conclusion to the day's play. After recovering from a poor volley that left him 4-2 down, Nadal did his best to pummel Djokovic off the court with his forehand, but the Serbian would not yield.
Nadal will rue missing two returns, while he got a taste of his own medicine on the second chance when Djokovic feathered a drop shot over the net.
Djokovic was cursing himself for missing a return as the clock ticked to 11pm but on the final lung-busting rally, it was Nadal who faltered first.