Novak Djokovic was weary and withdrawn for much of this semi-final, a shadow of his usual self burning in the sunshine over Centre Court, but even that deficit couldn’t bridge the gulf in class that swallowed up Cameron Norrie. The Briton had already defied expectation to reach Wimbledon’s last four and he stirred the most cynical of imaginations when he broke Djokovic three times in a barely fathomable first set. But with almost crushing inevitability, the defending champion raised his game and systematically ransacked his opponent of their spirit, cruising through the next three sets with increasing ease to close out a 2-6 6-3 6-2 6-4 victory.
Norrie fought valiantly until the end, but his shoulders had long slumped and a sense of regret might weigh heavily in the coming days. Djokovic had been so off-kilter at the start here, so heavy and inert, that you wonder if a better opportunity might ever present itself. But then, Djokovic has not reached four successive finals and extended an unbeaten record at Wimbledon to 27 matches by always hitting his peak level. It is an art as much as an ability to always find that extra gear when needed, to grind down his opponents and prick at their weaknesses just enough until the pressure makes them fold. Time and again he lured Norrie into uncharacteristic errors and played on the 26-year-old’s inexperience and frustration, but there was no shame in defeat after an excellent run that began with him as a British No 1 in relative anonymity and ends with him established on Wimbledon’s main stage.
Whether this sort of performance will be enough for Djokovic to maintain his supremacy remains another matter entirely. An injury might have robbed Centre Court of a wildly entertaining semi-final against Rafael Nadal, but Sunday’s final between Djokovic and Nick Kyrgios should deliver belligerence and fireworks in abundance. The pair are polar opposites and psychological adversaries, a relentless devotee versus a blaspheming renegade. Perhaps, that dismissive air is precisely what is required to deter Djokovic because Norrie’s arsenal here always felt underpowered, no matter how he tried.
If Djokovic starts as sluggishly as he did here, though, it’s not impossible that Kyrgios could blow him away. A veteran of ten Wimbledon semi-finals, Djokovic began with three unforced errors, blazing long and then limply into the net, to hand over the early break. Normally one to keep his emotions under wraps, Norrie uncorked a huge fist pump that betrayed the scale of the occasion but soon fell into a similar trap and his own, less surprising nerves saw him surrender the advantage all too easily. Djokovic recomposed himself when he held comfortably the next game and then produced one of the shots of the tournament, chasing down Norrie’s lob volley to produce an exquisite one of his own – only it was played through his legs.
Djokovic raised a hushing finger towards his box and it seemed for all the world as though his authority had been stamped. Instead, inexplicably, he stumbled again. His errors handed Norrie two more chances to break, and the Briton seized on them each time. You could sense with each point that he was growing in confidence, dictating rallies and piercing through the aura Djokovic so often casts over his opponents. There was a sense of disbelief as he served for the set with a 5-2 lead, but even two double faults couldn’t stop Norrie from closing it out. An ace hauled him over the line and he uncorked another swivelling uppercut towards his box. It was a start that had surely surpassed his wildest dreams while Djokovic traipsed the baseline with a hangdog expression.
He tried to shake himself out of that funk at the start of the second, almost breaking Norrie in the opening game, and when the Briton lost a smash in the glare of the sun at 2-3, Djokovic had another chance. But where he would usually have struck, Djokovic’s return sailed long and then a backhand slice met the same fate. The machine was malfunctioning, the margins still out, but the pressure was building and slowly but surely he was recalibrating. Serving at 4-3, Norrie framed a simple volley into the tramlines and then overcooked a drop shot. His nine lives had been used up, Djokovic broke with frustration rather than glee and closed out the set.
The match might have been back on even keel, but the momentum had irretrievably turned in Djokovic’s favour. Despite a dive in vain and a painful slip, the Serbian’s level had been raised enough to grind mistakes out of Norrie and he broke in the opening game of the third set. A quick hold consolidated it and, although Norrie did his best to seize on the crowd’s support, rallying them after a gutsy hold at 2-1, there was little doubt as to how the remainder of the match would unfold. Djokovic broke for a second time as Norrie succumbed to errors and attacked chances that weren’t there, and that the Briton managed to hold at 5-1 felt like a matter of saving dignity rather than chasing victory.
The frustration threatened to spill over in the fourth as Norrie’s shoulders dropped and he smashed a racket against his bag after being broken again. To his credit, he didn’t give in and survived a ten-minute game and two break points to ensure Djokovic didn’t sprint over the finish line. Any hopes of breaking Djokovic’s serve were always in vain and the Serbian ignited the crowd’s wrath as he shouted towards a spectator who’d heckled him on match point. Djokovic was briefly met with boos but then that is part of his raison d’être. No amount of skill, fatigue or yearning was going to stop him.