It was a flourish of such audacity that even Centre Court, a place where Novak Djokovic has never won any popularity contests, erupted in rapture. The tweener lob is an absurdly high-tariff shot, which even some of the finest players dare not attempt, either out of a fear of embarrassment or of whacking themselves in the groin. So when the Serb successfully pulled it off in only the fourth game, landing the ball inches inside the baseline before winning the point with the deftest volley, it was a chastening reminder to Cameron Norrie of how far he still had to travel.
Norrie has proved over the past 12 days that he is a wonderfully gifted player, whose maiden Masters title last October was by no means a fluke. There is still a yawning chasm, though, between his level and the almost insouciant brilliance displayed by Djokovic here. You know you are in trouble when the six-time champion, who tends to avoid splashly, low-percentage shots if he can help it, executes a lob between his legs with unerring precision.
It looked for all the world as if Norrie had won the point with an exquisite chip into the corner, only for Djokovic, quickly back-pedalling, to loop the ball back over his head. The fist-pump to his box told you everything about the degree of difficulty. So, too, did the reaction of John McEnroe in the commentary booth. “He’s getting ready for Nick Kyrgios,” he gushed. “He actually meant that shot.”
Djokovic was not exaggerating when he promised an abundance of “fireworks” against Kyrgios on Sunday. It is his one hope of converting the Centre Court crowd to his cause. Even as a true grass-court titan, who stands to equal Pete Sampras’ haul of seven Wimbledon titles – a mark that many deemed unassailable at the time – he seems fated always to suffer for the fact he is not Roger Federer. Just as he had to pretend during the 2019 final that the incessant cries of “Roger, Roger” were “Novak, Novak”, he grew increasingly irritated by the shrieking partisanship, especially when some tried calling out as he prepared to serve.
His rebuke to them at the end, blowing a mocking kiss, conveyed an ominous message that Djokovic is never more dangerous than when he feels a sense of rejection. He might not have won a set against Kyrgios in their two matches against each other, but he made it clear here that he would be at his destructive best.
Part of what makes him an all-time great is his capacity for shifting through the gears when required. Preposterously, he has now reached the final in 32 of the 68 majors he has played. And yet when Rishi Persad, the on-court interviewer, recited that statistic at the end, Djokovic was in no mood to succumb to casual flattery. “I appreciate that,” he shrugged. “But the job is not finished.”
Norrie understood that he had been dealt a punishing lesson. He acknowledged Djokovic’s superior shot-making and intensity of focus. So why, after breaking the top seed three times in the first set, could he not make a better effort at emulating him? The answer is that Djokovic is so remorselessly accurate and attritional, he forces even a player of Norrie’s athleticism into a state of helpless submission.
When Djokovic fell two sets down to Jannik Sinner in the quarter-final, he took himself off to the bathroom and splashed water on his face, as if to remind himself of his alpha-male status. It was reminiscent of the moment Rory McIlroy’s former caddie, JP Fitzgerald, told him, during one especially errant Open round: “You’re Rory McIlroy – what the f— are you doing?” For the reigning champion, there was no necessity for any repeat pep talk against Norrie. His sole adjustment was to put on a cap to shield the glare of the sun. From there, he simply ground the life out of the British No1.
For Kyrgios, who admitted to sleeplessness and unusual extremes of anxiety on realising he had reached the final, it was a performance to chill the blood. The mere sight of that outrageous lob, sealing a point Djokovic had no right to win, threatened to stalk his nightmares ahead of his most daunting day.