Novak Djokovic rises to Alexei Popyrin challenge and reaches fourth round | Wimbledon 2024

Novak Djokovic, like England, knows all about extra time and penalties. He has been in that perilous zone most of the year, with no titles and ­gathering vulnerability – but unwavering self-belief to match mountainous expectations; he has never lacked for either.

And here he is, like England, still in the tournament, defying the ­consensus after recent knee surgery – and the sterling challenge of world No 47, Alexei Popyrin – to be three wins away from a 10th final, with the bookmakers twitching again.

Roger Federer has gone. Andy Murray has (almost certainly) gone. Rafael Nadal is going. Djokovic is still there, still winning, still great, if ­marginally diminished.

Indeed, if the 37-year-old Serb were to win his eighth Wimbledon title on one good leg in the autumn of his career to draw alongside Federer, it would rank as one of his ­finest achievements in ­putting together an unapproachable ­collection of 25 majors.

To his credit, Popyrin – whom he beat 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (3), on Saturday night to reach the fourth round for the 16th time – made him sweat for it. Appearing in his fifth Wimbledon and yet to get past the third round, the 24-year-old Australian, whose big serve and delightful one-handed backhand lit up Centre Court, played some excellent tennis, but not quite enough of it at the right time.

Djokovic, who next plays the Dane Holger Rune, said courtside, “It was another tough match. I didn’t expect anything less. He was close to win that. We played each other in Australia. He’s dangerous on any surface. He was the better player in the first set. And in the fourth it was anybody’s game. It was one of the best tie-breaks I played this year.

“Each match is getting better: movement, confidence, reach, sliding. Hoping the trajectory will keep going in a positive way.”

Even when Popyrin broke in the first set with a blistering cross-court forehand, and held his nerve to go 1-0 up, it was the old boy wearing the strapping on his right knee who was still the favourite.

The world No 2 has been through this scenario countless times in his long career, often taking nearly an hour to get his motor revved before cruising to the line like a Rolls Royce. There would be a few pot holes to negotiate here over the journey, but he hit back quickly, breaking for 3-1 in the second.

Then, a peculiar highlight: as Popyrin stepped up to serve at 1-4, the chair had to ask for quiet, as those watching England seal the deal in their Euro 2024 penalty shootout on their phones could not contain their oohs and aahs. It was as if the ­tension had passed from Düsseldorf to south-west London for the rest of the evening.

Alexei Popyrin congratulates Novak Djokovic after their match. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

Having established a mutually coherent rhythm, the combatants ­settled down to a string of ­entertaining exchanges until Djokovic cracked the truce. He broke for 2-0 then shocked Popyrin with the sort of forehand return that once so stunned Federer at the US Open the Swiss lost his cool to describe it as the sort of hit-and-hope shot a teenager might play.

How he would like to be compared to an impetuous teenager now. There is still plenty of vigour in his tennis, though, and his movement was not far off his best.

His precision on serve and off the ground slowly nonplussed an ­opponent unsure of where the next bullet was coming from. In the course of the match, Djokovic hit his ­thousandth ace at Wimbledon, so there is still pop on his serve.

As the third set slid from his view, Popyrin dug in to extend the drama as long as he could. Clearly thrilled to be there at all, he was not going to leave meekly. As the rallies lengthened and the clock ticked, he forced Djokovic to pull out a big service game to stay in the fourth set.

Popyrin saved three break points to hold for 6-5, and the pressure was back again on the second seed.

Djokovic held, won an edgy tie-break and the curtain came down in just over three hours, the ­gallant ­loser’s moment on the big stage soon to be only a memory, albeit one to cherish.

For the winner, there was relief and optimism, his self-belief as strong as ever. In an end-of-the-day match that seemed almost like an afterthought in the gloaming, Djokovic reminded us of his greatness. He is still too good for anyone but the very best.

Quick Guide

Wimbledon: last-16 draws

Show

Men’s singles:

(1) Jannik Sinner v Ben Shelton (14)

(10) Grigor Dimitrov v Daniil Medvedev (5)

(3) Carlos Alcaraz v Ugo Humbert (16)

(12) Tommy Paul v Roberto Bautista Agut

(25) Lorenzo Musetti v Giovanni Mpetshi Perricard

(13) Taylor Fritz v Alexander Zverev (4)

Arthur Fils v Alex de Minaur (9)

(15) Holger Rune v Novak Djokovic (2)

Women’s singles:

Yulia Putinsteva v Jelena Ostapenko (13)

(11) Danielle Collins v Barbora Krejcikova (31)

(4) Elena Rybakina v Anna Kalinskaya (17)

(21) Elina Svitolina v Xinyu Wang

Lulu Sun v Emma Raducanu

Paula Badosa v Donna Vekic

(7) Jasmine Paolini v Madison Keys (12)

(19) Emma Navarro v Coco Gauff (2)

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Already, Djokovic is out of sight of his peers. There are young tigers who might one day get close to his records, but, to borrow from the late Yorkshire fast bowler Fred Trueman, “they’ll be bloody tired”.

Beforehand, he observed of his torn meniscus: “It has been ­responding really well. The muscles around it are more sore than normal, not giving me that dynamic speed and power. It has an impact on my movement, kind of late on the ball.

“The more matches I have the more comfortable I will feel moving around, agility, change of direction. I don’t have the time or energy to think about reinjuring my knee.”

That last notion is the most ­revealing. He is not worried any more about long-term consequences.

He knows all about time, and how it runs out, uncontrolled. There’s a bit of sand in the hourglass yet, but not so much he can abuse it. Just like England.

First appeared on www.theguardian.com

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