WIMBLEDON – Roberto Bautista Agut has a lot to be proud of this Wimbledon.
It’s not just that he reached his first Grand Slam semifinal. After overcoming some understandable early nerves, the 31-year-old can also be proud of what he came up with during the biggest match of his career.
Centre Court at Wimbledon, against the defending champion, with Novak Djokovic the heavy favorite. And, almost everyone dismissing even a whiff of a possibility that the 31-year-old Spaniard could pull off the upset.
He just wasn’t quite good enough.
Not only that, it was an overlooked match because of what was to come in the nightcap – a “rematch” of the iconic 2008 singles final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
But for a “oh, get on with it to we can see Fedal” match, it was a good one.
For about a set and a half, a very good one.
Too much experience from the defending champ
Unfortunately for Bautista Agut, Djokovic had just too much experience in these moments. And he simply had more tennis options at his disposal in a 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory that put him into the final.
As it turns out, against Roger Federer.
Bautista Agut had actually beaten Djokovic the last two times they met – both this season, in Doha and Miami.
Both times, he came back after losing the first set to squeeze out a tight second set, and then close out the victory.
If there were moments of patchy play from Djokovic in the first part of the match, it could well have been because he had those losses somewhere in his mind. He had every reason to be confident. But he also knew what could happen, if things didn’t go right.
When innate confidence battles occasional spurts of doubt, the level necessarily drops while the two duke it out.
The other element was that Djokovic sometimes seems to need an enemy to fight against. It’s a mechanism that charges him up, that he uses to good, not bad effect.
Against Federer or Nadal, who are chasing the same history, there’s no need to look further.
But a player like Bautista Agut is, in some senses, like a blank canvas. He doesn’t give you anything to fire you up. He doesn’t create much on the tennis court to inspire you to create something better.
He’s just there, gracious, fighting hard, solid, waiting for the better player to come up with the goods to beat him.
So Djokovic engaged the crowd a little bit when it got behind the underdog, just to give him something to battle against.
And in the end, Djokovic came up with those goods.
Perhaps he could have beaten Bautista Agut from the baseline. It is both their strengths. Obviously, the No. 1 is better at it. But limiting it to baseline rallies would be to play into Bautista Agut’s hands.
The longer he let his opponent remain in his comfort zone, the better the chances that he could get grooved.
The Djokovic of 2019 has a lot more than that. His game plan Friday was not to win the rallies every time – he did win that 45-shot rally that will live on in infamy to grass-court purists), but to create, to push the envelope.
Was it in the back of the Serb’s mind that it was in his interest to bank every bit of energy he could for what was going to be a tough final on Sunday – regardless of who won the other semi? Possibly. If so, the game plan served a dual purpose.
If Djokovic’s volley and his slice backhand are the least technically-sound weapons in his arsenal, he has become at home with them. And he has improved them over the years. He used both very well on Friday.
Djokovic came to net 53 times in those four sets, and won 42 of those points – a shade below 80 per cent.
It was the most he had come in through six matches, although in his first five, he also committed to moving forward. Djokovic kicked off his Wimbledon going 17-for-21 at the net against Philipp Kohlschreiber. And in none of the matches was his success rate at the net below 70 per cent.
Those were extra levels of tennis that Bautista Agut doesn’t have. And in the end, the defending champion survived a high-quality period in the second and the first part of the third set from his Spanish opponent, and rolled from there.