LONDON, (Reuters) – Novak Djokovic and Marcos Baghdatis had the normally reserved Centre Court crowd rocking in the aisles yesterday as they produced their second Wimbledon blockbuster in four years.
For the record, world number two Djokovic won 6-4 4-6 6-3 6-4 but the scoreline fails to do justice to a match which had everything from temper tantrums to jaw-dropping rallies.
Serbia’s Djokovic demolished his racket frame after one point that bordered on the preposterous at the end of the second set but despite feeling heavy-legged he resisted a furious barrage from the grinning Cypriot showman to reach the last 16.
The 24-year-old won 41 consecutive matches this year, including the Australian Open, but few of those wins provided the sheer sporting theatre that captivated 15,000 fans in Centre Court and millions around the world on television.
“I mean, playing here the last five years, there were not many moments when I saw practically all the Centre Court stadium on their feet,” Djokovic, who faces French serve and volleyer Michael Llodra on Monday, told reporters.
“It was incredible really. It was exciting to see the Centre Court of Wimbledon being so enthusiastic about the match.
“Me as a player, I have to appreciate that and be happy I was a part of the exciting match.
“I was moving really bad. I didn’t feel great on the court. I think I won because I was hanging in there and fighting.”
Djokovic, poised to take over as world number one if Rafa Nadal fails to retain his title here, was in control of the first set and pounced at his first opportunity when former top-tenner Baghdatis served at 4-5.
Something about the Wimbledon air inspires 26-year-old Baghdatis though and he began striking the ball with real panache as Djokovic retreated into his shell.
A forehand return winner that Djokovic barely even saw signalled a Baghdatis counter-attack in the third game of the second set and he secured his first break of the match thanks to a double-fault from an increasingly agitated opponent.
Gesticulating towards his box and chuntering to himself, Djokovic finally exploded in the eighth game when he floated a backhand long after a staggering exchange which had the crowd rubbing their eyes in disbelief.
Once, twice, three times Djokovic buried his racket frame into the dust patch behind the baseline until his shiny frame was in pieces — the warning issued by the umpire almost drowned out by the din.
“I like to make sure,” Djokovic, who beat Baghdatis in a five-hour epic Wimbledon quarter-final in 2007, joked later.
“Look, I’m not going to change who I am. I can work on some things, but, you know, my temper is my temper. My character is my character.
“On the bright side, I hung in there and in the important moments I stayed emotionally stable, believing that I can win, and that’s what matters the most.”
After the free-hitting Baghdatis, who once broke British hearts by beating Andy Murray on Centre Court, levelled the match it looked grim for Djokovic.
He was reduced to ball retriever for a while as Baghdatis pounded the corners, his racket a swishing blade. At one point Baghdatis ended up on Djokovic’s baseline after chasing down a drop shot, sharing a joke with a lineswoman while he was there.
It was cracking stuff but Djokovic, whose nickname is Joker, is not the heir to the No.1 throne for nothing and when he needed to dig deep, he kept digging.
He broke Baghdatis’s serve in a mesmerising fourth game of the third set despite trailing 40-0 and suddenly a match that appeared to be slipping away was back in his grasp.
He broke again to lead 3-2 in the fourth when Baghdatis hoicked a forehand into the net but there was a final twist when Djokovic served for the match and was seized with nerves, fluffing a forehand into the net.
A fist-pumping Djokovic saved two break points, one with a Hawkeye challenge, and finally claimed victory when Baghdatis fired a forehand wide.
The warm embrace at the net between two of the game’s stand-out personalities spoke volumes and Djokovic was clearly relieved to still be in the hunt for the Wimbledon title.