There was a moment there, as Andy Murray trailed Fernando Verdasco by a couple of sets, Jerzy Janowicz had been reduced to blubbering incoherency and Juan Martin del Potro was one functioning knee short of a full complement, when it looked like Novak Djokovic’s path to his second Wimbledon title would be even less difficult than anticipated. This was encouraging for those of us who’d based our predictions on the initial version of the draw. Once the tournament commenced, this draw was almost immediately re-imagined in homage to M. C. Escher, thus confounding everyone. It was a pleasant feeling to get one thing right. Those who’d presumed to analyse the women’s draw can’t even claim that.
It was entirely appropriate that of the four men who yesterday moved through to the semifinals, Djokovic’s victory celebrations were the most muted, at least in relative terms. The world number one has now reached his thirteenth straight Major semifinal, and knows there’s work still to be done. At the far end of the spectrum was Janowicz, who reached his first Major semifinal, inspiring a joy so overwhelming it rendered him nearly insensate to anything. (More contrast was provided when he celebrated victory by donning his opponent’s shirt, whereas Djokovic’s greatest triumphs inspire him to shred his.) I’m not sure it even qualifies as irony that Janowicz’s match was the most straightforward of the lot in purely tennis terms. For all that Łukasz Kubot played very well, Janowicz was never behind. Djokovic at least had to recover a double break in the third, or at any rate he had to hold fast while Tomas Berdych recovered it for him. Otherwise Djokovic out-served, out-returned and generally out-rallied the Czech, especially once parity had been restored in the second set.
Meanwhile del Potro’s impediment came not from his hobbled and oddly over-matched opponent, but from his own left knee, against which the Argentine seems to bear a particular grudge. He’d already savaged it a few rounds ago, but then did so again in the fifth point of yeasterday’s match, crashing heavily to the court. A long medical time-out ensued, during which a field hospital tent was erected, within which the tournament witch-doctor conducted a dark ritual akin to the one that saw Khal Drogo reduced to a vegetable, though with a more salubrious outcome. I am assured no ponies were harmed; indeed one was saved. The official explanation is that del Potro ingested an anti-inflammatory of such wondrous efficacy that he himself later dubbed it a ‘magic pill’. Who am I to argue? I still think escalators are a kind of sorcery. In any case, a near-certain retirement was averted, and then happily transfigured into something else.
Ferrer’s bad ankle having had ample chance to cool, he was broken a few games later, and then a few games after that. Just a year ago the Spaniard had played superbly to dismantle del Potro in straight sets at this very event, a result that was perfectly in keeping with their other encounters, rather than peculiar to the location or surface. Ferrer beats del Potro everywhere. It is known. Except yesterday he didn’t. It’s easy to blame injury for this, and not necessarily wrong to. Del Potro’s knee inspired him to a level of aggression more commensurate with his innate firepower – too often he plays within himself, perhaps believing his forehand’s best role is that of a nuclear deterrent – while Ferrer’s injury took away his best asset, which is to say his mobility. This is, of course, reductive. Ferrer also made a ton of unforced errors, which is saying something at Wimbledon, where in order to accrue that stat one must fail to put away an overhead at the net while the opponent is chatting to the umpire. The third set tiebreak was excellent, and tight, and concluded fittingly with a sequence of fearless del Potro running forehands. One of my many incorrect pre-tournament predictions was that del Potro wouldn’t go far. I only wish I could blame the draw for that. I’m pleased to be wrong, though.
Fearless forehands more or less defined Verdasco’s first couple of sets as well, although these were usefully interleaved with some excellent variety off the backhand – including a determination to go up the line – and a laudable plan to get around his propensity to double-fault by going after his second serve. Since so many of his double-faults plonk limply in the net, this was a pretty good idea, and it certainly did its part to keep Murray at bay. It also required courage to stick with it, especially after he opened with a double fault. After that Verdasco was great, while Murray wasn’t. Murray’s own second serves were ill-directed and dismally soft even by his standards – averaging well below eighty miles per hour in the early going – and the first set ended when one missed the service box entirely. Scripts were consulted throughout Dear Old Blighty, and it was discovered that, in keeping with this year’s Wimbledon, it had been sharply deviated from. It was Murray’s first dropped set of the championship.
The next set was his second. Due credit must go to the resurgent Verdasco, who was stepping in and going after everything, but Murray for his part was far too diffident, conceding immense acreage by retreating metres behind the baseline. His defence was naturally brilliant – often making retrievals from beyond the camera frame – but he was guaranteeing that it had to be. If there was a strategy involved, it seemed to rely heavily on the assumption that Verdasco couldn’t maintain such form forever, although based on recent seasons it probably wasn’t an unreasonably assumption to make. It was justified in the third set. Verdasco dipped, and Murray lifted. Over on Court One the Poles repeatedly aborted their service motions as the mighty roars accompanying Murray’s successfully breaks and holds washed over the grounds. Verdasco reasserted himself in the fourth set however, and Murray was obliged to save a number of break points with his first serve. Missing any of those would have proved catastrophic, but he held firm, broke, and took the set. It was all even and the crowd went bananas. The fifth was the best set of the match.
For those inclined to find Verdasco endlessly disappointing, it’s vaguely heartening that his two best performances at Grand Slams have ended not with a whimper, but with a bang, in explosive five set tussles. I hope he feels encouraged by that, in time. Murray, of course, moves on. After the match he insisted he’d enjoyed himself immensely, especially the way the crowd had supported him when he fell behind two sets. One imagines the prevailing feeling was relief, which I suppose is also a kind of enjoyment. For his supporters – and I’m sympathetic to his cause – any confidence that he’d have an easy passage to the final has given way to the fervent hope that he won’t begin the semifinal as he began the quarterfinal. His tendency when nervous is to invite attack, knowing that his legs and hands will always work. Against Verdasco’s big forehand it was enough, barely. But in Janowicz he’s about to face a guy with a big everything, a nearly un-lobbable giant whose serves can hit any part of the service box, and whose incongruous mastery of the drop-shot will punish any inclination to retreat. One wonders what Janowicz will make of Murray’s second serve. Mincemeat, quite possibly.
Of course, it could all come down to nerves, for both of them. This is all new for Janowicz, although he has already proved himself a dab hand at deflecting pressure. When he finally stopped shaking enough to be successfully interviewed, the Pole remarked that he hopes ‘Andy will feel some kind of pressure. I’m sure he’ll feel some kind of pressure because Great Britain is waiting for the English champion in Wimbledon.’ Make of that what you will.