It took a double-handed backhand rifled down the line in the longest rally ever recorded at Wimbledon for Novak Djokovic to finally feel the love from the Centre Court crowd.
That 45-shot rally in the third set proved the tipping point as the world No 1 overcame Roberto Bautista Agut in four sets to set up a date with Roger Federer in Saturday’s final.
He will have the crowd almost universally against him in that match but that is nothing new for a man whom so many tennis fans have found it difficult to love, especially as compared to the sainted duo of Roger and Rafa.
Novak Djokovic will face Roger Federer in Wimbledon final after beating Roberto Bautista Agut
Djokovic broke early on in the match, going on to take the first set comfortably at SW19
Bautista Agut faltered early in the match but rallied to level the game in the second set
The 32-year-old Serbian cupped his ear to the crowd after winning that epic point but for much of the match the Wimbledon faithful put their voices behind his Spanish opponent.
‘I focused on what I need to do,’ said Djokovic. ‘At times (the crowd) wanted him to come back into the match, maybe take a lead because he was an underdog. I understand that.
‘But I had enough support here over the years, so I don’t complain.’
He may struggle to capture the affection of the Wimbledon patrons but there is much to admire about Djokovic, not least his insatiable desire for improvement.
For example, he has worked tirelessly to improve his net game and the fruits of those labours were on show on Friday in a display of volleying that would have made Goran Ivanisevich, the latest addition to his coaching team, proud.
Djokovic won 42 of the 53 points when he approached the net and almost half of his winners came from volleys.
The No 1 seed’s form dropped in the second set, and Bautista Agut drew level on Centre Court
He was forced to thus adapt his game against a player who had beaten him in their last two meetings, in Doha and Miami this year. Bautista Agut is one of the very few individuals who possesses the consistency, athleticism and sheer bloody-mindedness to duel with Djokovic from the baseline.
The 31-year-old Spaniard was a surprise semi-finalist here, so much so that he had arranged his stag do for this week.
But his six friends flew back from Ibiza and were in his box along with his fiancee Ana Bodi Tortosa. And all seven burst into applause when Bautista Agut began the match by striking his 89th forehand winner of the tournament, lashing a Djokovic first serve back past him down the line.
But that was an anomaly in an opening set Djokovic dominated against an opponent clearly nervous in his first Grand Slam semi final.
Bautista Agut is a tough cookie, however, and he settled down into his metronomic rhythm. After a Djokovic hold to open the second set Bautista Agut won 11 of the next 12 points, his flat bullet of a forehand emerging from the hibernation into which it had retreated since the first point of the match.
Djokovic battled back to take the third set, despite Bautista Agut pushing him all the way
There was no noticeable change in Bautista Agut’s demeanour but he looked far more comfortable in the rallies and the crowd roared him on. Djokovic, meanwhile, was bellowing in frustration and gesticulating wildly.
‘It’s nothing unusual,’ he said. ‘You go through these kind of emotional moments, especially in big matches like this, all the time. Sometimes I show my emotions, sometimes I don’t. There’s always something that can take you out of the comfort zone.’
And out of his comfort zone he most certainly was. Three times the No 1 seed changed rackets, rooting around in his bag for the right tool with which to combat a resurgent opponent.
A high-class strategist, Djokovic settled on the tactic of frequent forays to the net combined with a relentless pummelling of the less dangerous Bautista Agut backhand.
Djokovic puts his finger to his lips during the pulsating semi-final on Centre Court
He then made light work of the waning Spaniard in the fourth set to reach the final on Sunday
The match turned with that sprawling, epic rally in the third set. With Djokovic leading 4-2 but break point down, they went back and forth for 44 shots. There were 16 consecutive cross-court backhands until Djokovic took his fate into his own hands and reversed one down the line.
When it really mattered, Bautista Agut played not to lose and Djokovic played to win.
‘Winning that game was crucial for me,’ he said. ‘It gave me more confidence and relief so I could swing more freely.’
He never looked back from that rally, the longest since Wimbledon began recording their statistics in 2005, and he sealed his place in the final on his fourth match point.