After surviving what he describes as “one of the toughest matches in his Wimbledon career” against Kevin Anderson, Novak Djokovic had little time to regroup ahead of another face-off with a cannon-server, Marin Cilic, in the quarter-finals on Wednesday.
Djokovic will be playing for a third consecutive day having had to come back to Court 1 on Tuesday to play the fifth set of his suspended fourth round with Anderson, which was halted due to fading light on Monday night.
After trailing by two sets to love, Djokovic had levelled the match to force a deciding fifth.
Upon resumption on Tuesday, there were no signs of Anderson slowing down as the South African power-hitter was holding his games to love and piling the pressure on Djokovic throughout most of the set.
By 5-4, Anderson had blasted 40 aces and was landing 80 per cent of his first serves in.
But one nervy 11th game saw the No14 seed double fault twice – his first of the set – and it was all Djokovic needed to pounce. The top-seeded defending champion broke, held, and clawed his way into his 25th consecutive grand slam quarter-final.
“I was helpless on my return,” Djokovic said on TV as he walked off the court.
He added later in his press conference: “It was a very difficult match, one of the most difficult in my Wimbledon career, that's for sure,” said a relieved Djokovic on Tuesday.
“I thought Kevin played exceptionally well throughout the entire match. Maybe he dropped his level a little bit in the third set. But other than that, he was serving very efficiently, very powerful serve. Also high percentage of first serves. It was very difficult for me to read because he has a same toss for every direction.”
In the quarter-finals today, Djokovic will have a rematch with Cilic, who lost to the Serb in five sets at the same stage here at the All England Club last year then went on to make a stunning run to the US Open title.
Cilic, seeded No9 this fortnight, has lost all his 12 previous matches to Djokovic but unlike the world No1, he had a full day off yesterday having beaten Dennis Kudla in the last 16 on Monday.
Goran Ivanisevic, Cilic’s coach and 2001 Wimbledon champion, doesn’t think Djokovic will be any disadvantage though having to play for a third straight day.
“No difference, Novak is so fit that he can play every day 27 sets and still be focused. He’s so mentally strong that this doesn’t matter. It’s only one set (he played yesterday),” Ivanisevic told me on Tuesday.
Both Djokovic and his German coach, three-time Wimbledon winner Boris Becker, agree with Ivanisevic and are confident the world No1 will be ready for battle today.
Djokovic was in the same situation entering the French Open final last month having had to complete a five-set win over Andy Murray over two days before returning for a third day to face Stan Wawrinka. He lost to Wawrinka in four sets in the final.
“I don't think it's too much a matter of really experience. It's just how your body reacts and how it recovers,” said Djokovic.
“In that particular scenario, I played two sets with Andy the next day, and then I had to play finals the day after. Here I played a set today. I think I'm going to be fine for tomorrow. I think I haven't spent too much energy throughout this tournament. Of course, this match was by far the toughest I had so far. Let's see. I'm confident I can feel good.”
Becker, who yesterday celebrated the 30-year anniversary of his first Wimbledon title victory, also feels his charge is in better shape here compared to how he felt going into the French Open final.
“I think it affected him in Paris. I think those 10 per cent he needed to win the final were missing. But here on grass it’s different,” said Becker.
“I think the extra set or two helps him here, because he didn’t spend much time on court in the first three rounds. I think once you go through as a player you weather the storm. And I think if anyone thought he wasn’t ready before, he’s ready now.”
Djokovic’s record against Cilic is the 28-year-old’s best undefeated record against any opponent he’s ever faced.
While the top seed is looking to register his 50th Wimbledon match win (only six men have done so in the Open Era) and enter a 27th career grand slam semi-final, Cilic is hoping to reach just his third semi at a major.
Ivanisevic knows what his fellow Croat is up against but believes there’s a first time for everything.
“There’s always time for the first time. Hopefully it can happen here. There’s no better place to beat somebody you’ve lost to 12 times in a row,” said the 43-year-old.
“Marin is back (from shoulder injury) and he’s ready to compete pain-free which is the most important thing and this is a perfect surface for him. Before the tournament I said my favourite was Djokovic but there are five guys who can beat him – one is Marin, Milos Raonic, who lost, Wawrinka is second, Roger Federer and Andy Murray. So four guys are still there."