Favourite Novak Djokovic trailed for the first time at this year’s Wimbledon but responded in brutal fashion to beat Andrey Rublev 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-3 to reach the semifinals on Tuesday for the 12th time.
Inspired seventh seed Rublev snatched the opening set but it was akin to poking a sleeping grizzly bear as Djokovic exacted painful punishment to stay on track for a fifth straight title.
Rublev played brilliant tennis that would have accounted for pretty much any other player in the world.
But it was not enough to stop the 36-year-old Djokovic reaching his 46th Grand Slam semifinal, equalling the record of eight-time champion Roger Federer.
Second seed Djokovic will face Jannik Sinner next after the Italian also beat a Russian opponent in Roman Safiullin earlier on Tuesday and he will need no reminding that he trailed Sinner by two sets in last year’s quarterfinal.
At an age when normal athletes are winding down, Djokovic’s thirst for battle remain unquenchable, as he demonstrated again by repelling a feisty Rublev in what was his 400th Grand Slam match - a milestone reached only by Federer and Serena Williams.
At the end of the third set, Centre Court became a cauldron of noise as the players slugged out some mind-boggling rallies, Rublev whipping up the crowd after one and Djokovic responding by cupping his ear to the crowd after another.
Asked afterwards how he copes with the pressure of being the player everyone wants to beat every time he steps on court, the Serbian said: “I love it, I’m serious. Pressure will never go away regardless of how many Grand Slams you win.
“Every time out here it awakens beautiful emotions and motivates me beyond anything I’ve dreamed of. I know they want to get the scalp, they want the win, but it ain’t happening...”
Boxing enthusiast Rublev boasts one of the most destructive forehands in tennis, often accompanied by a primal grunt that even Djokovic admits is ‘scary’.
When the Russian broke serve in the eighth game with a couple of blows from his signature shot, then held serve thanks to a Djokovic error to win the opening set it seemed a first win in a Grand Slam quarterfinal at the eighth attempt was possible - even against a man without a Centre Court loss for a decade.
But before Rublev had even had time to process his lead he was 5-0 down in the second set as Djokovic bounced back.
The second seed was in control as he broke serve early in the third set but Rublev was not done.
He saved break points at 2-4 and then stretched Djokovic to his elastic-limbed limits in the 10th game, having three break points and saving four set points in a sensational game to move within a set of his 33rd successive Wimbledon win.
Briefly deflated, the 25-year-old Rublev fell 3-1 behind in the fourth set and there was no coming back as Djokovic wrapped up the win with a silky volley that had his opponent throwing himself forlornly across the turf.
Later, Rublev sounded an ominous note to those standing in the way of Djokovic’s quest to become the oldest man in the professional era to win the title and his eighth in total.
“I feel like he’s playing better and better compared to our matches before,” Rublev said.
“Today was the first time I was ready to play, and I was there, I had these little chances that I didn’t make. He made them. That’s why he’s Novak, one of the greatest in history.”
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