That was the difference Friday as Djokovic turned what in many ways was a closely contested Wimbledon semifinal into a straight-sets victory over 22-year-old Denis Shapovalov — a 7-6 (7-3), 7-5, 7-5 win that sent Djokovic to Sunday’s Wimbledon final for the seventh time in his career.
Standing in his way will be big-serving Matteo Berrettini, who earlier Friday became the first Italian to reach a Wimbledon final with a 6-3, 6-0, 6-7 (7-3), 6-4 victory over Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz.
“So far, it’s the best tennis day of my life,” Berrettini, 25, told the capacity crowd on Centre Court after dismissing Hurkacz, who just 48 hours earlier had made eight-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer look pedestrian in a straight-sets demolition.
In what could be a glorious Sunday for Italian sports fans, Berrettini will contest Wimbledon’s final in southwest London roughly six hours before Italy’s men’s soccer team takes on England in the final of the European Championship at Wembley Stadium in the city’s northwest.
The 6-foot-5 Berrettini has one of the more powerful serves in tennis, and he blasted 22 aces past the 14th-seeded Hurkacz to clinch his spot in the final. But Djokovic, against whom the seventh-seeded Berrettini has an 0-2 record, will present a far more daunting challenge.
Shapovalov, a big-hitting, left-handed Canadian with a blond forelock that flops over his white bandanna, was in his first Grand Slam semifinal. The No. 10 seed earned his spot the hard way, weathering two five-set matches to reach the final four, while Djokovic’s path had been easier, with one wild card, one qualifier and only one seeded player among his five previous opponents.
Djokovic, a five-time and recent Wimbledon champion (having won in 2019 before last year’s event was canceled), had myriad reasons to feel confident while striding onto Centre Court. He had won 15 of the past 16 Grand Slam semifinals he had contested. And he was riding a 19-match winning streak on grass.
Shapovalov, Wimbledon’s 2016 junior champion, had fewer, with a 0-6 career record against the Serb. But as Shapovalov told himself — and anyone who asked on the eve of the match — the score would be 0-0 when the first ball was struck.
Shapovalov started full of brio, blasting forehands and ripping beautiful one-handed backhands down the line to put the champion on his heels. He got the first break of serve and, at 5-4, came within two points of claiming the opening set.
But in a sequence that would be repeated like a tape loop, Djokovic conjured something special — whether forehand winner, ace or masterful service return — to slam the door at nearly every pivotal juncture. He faced 11 break points and fended off 10. As Shapovalov’s frustration mounted, so did his unforced errors, which tallied 36 in the end to Djokovic’s 15.
Djokovic closed the match on his eighth ace and let rip an ungodly roar as he pounded his chest. Afterward, the 34-year-old explained that excelling on pressure points is not something he was born with. It is an ability he has acquired over time, through experience, mental discipline and physical work.
“The more matches you play and the more times you’re in these similar situations, the more confident or more comfortable you feel,” Djokovic said. “So I think that experience definitely favors me every single time, next time I get to work on the court, knowing that I’ve been through everything that I could possibly go through as a tennis player. I know my strengths. I know what I’m capable of. I rely on that.”
That is the challenge Berrettini will face Sunday: the impenetrable wall and ferocious competitor that is Djokovic when a Grand Slam title is at stake.
With a sixth Wimbledon championship, Djokovic would match Federer and Rafael Nadal’s record of 20 majors. That is merely his short-term goal.
Djokovic is eyeing something more grand: sole possession of men’s tennis history, which he could attain by mid-September if he wins Sunday and sweeps all four Grand Slam events this year by adding a fourth U.S. Open to bring his tally to 21. As an extra flourish, he also is chasing Olympic gold at the Tokyo Games, which would set him up to become the only man to achieve the “Golden Slam” of winning all four majors and Olympic gold in singles in one year. (Steffi Graf did so in 1988.)
“At this stage in my career, the Grand Slams are everything,” Djokovic said. “They are the four most important events in our sport. Only one match exists in a few days.”
Shapovalov came closer to denying Djokovic a sixth Wimbledon title than any opponent yet, extending their semifinal to 2 hours 44 minutes — longer by nearly 30 minutes than any of the Serb’s five previous matches.
After shaking Djokovic’s hand at the net, Shapovalov turned to the crowd, which was on its feet, and patted his heart several times. Then his face reddened, and tears fell as he walked off court.