Novak Djokovic yesterday defeated Andy Murray’s conqueror Grigor Dimitrov to reach his third Wimbledon final in four years.
The Serbian, the winner in 2011 and beaten by Murray last year, edged a tense four-set battle 6-4 3-6 7-6 (7/2) 7-6 (9/7).
Dimitrov, who was watched by girlfriend Maria Sharapova, certainly had his opportunities, but missed four chances to extend his first grand slam semi-final to a fifth set.
Djokovic has taken over from Roger Federer as the master of consistency at the grand slams, failing to reach the last four just once in his last 17 tournaments.
This is the 12th time he has made the final in that run, and the challenge for the Serbian now will be to reverse a trend that has seen him win just one of his last six finals.
Dimitrov has made rapid strides under tough Australian coach Roger Rasheed, but it was his victory over Murray in the last eight that really announced him as one not just for the future but for the present.
As poor as the defending champion had been, Dimitrov had played a complete match, full of attacking flair but also rock solid defence.
It could not have been more different in the early stages yesterday, a gusty breeze and no doubt plenty of nerves combining to leave Dimitrov looking like he was running in treacle.
The Bulgarian, on a nine-match winning streak which had taken in his Queen’s Club title, was making basic errors, mistiming shots and Djokovic, without playing particularly well, eased into a set and 3-1 lead.
But from there the momentum abruptly shifted.
First Dimitrov saved a break point with an ace, effectively keeping the set alive, and a game later he was back at 3-3 when Djokovic netted a backhand.
The top seed had not managed to shake off the tension and he looked despairingly towards his supporters in the player box – his pregnant girlfriend Jelena Ristic was absent.
But Djokovic could not turn the tide back his way, and the lack of clarity in his thinking was demonstrated when, on set point, he chose to stop the rally and challenge a ball that was shown to be in.
Both men knew the importance of the third set, but there was no doubt Dimitrov, the novice semi-finalist, looked much more comfortable.
Djokovic had been slipping a lot on the worn grass and changed shoes after the fifth game, but his foothold in the match remained far from secure.
At 3-3 he faced the first break point of the set and was very fortunate to save it, scrambling Dimitrov’s fizzing return just over the net with an unconvincing backhand.
The third-set tie-break was a crucial moment in the match, but Dimitrov never threatened to make it close, and it got worse for the young Bulgarian when he double-faulted three times in a row to hand Djokovic a break in the third game of the fourth set.
But Djokovic did not make him pay, handing the break straight back, and he had to fight off three break points in his next service game.
Dimitrov still firmly believed the match was there for the taking and brought up a set point at 5-4 with a volley at full stretch that caught the edge of the line.
He pumped his fist but could only net the return on the next point, and Djokovic roared long and loud when he clinched the game.
The top seed was on the ropes again in the tie-break when Dimitrov brought up three more set points at 6-3 in front, but he could not take any of them.
A first match point came and went for Djokovic, but on his second opportunity Dimitrov’s volley set up the chance for a cross-court forehand winner and he took it, with a little help from the net.
Djokovic sounded like a relieved man afterwards, saying: “It was a tough match overall. The fourth set could have gone either way.
“I thought I started well, a set and a break and break points for a double break. Like the last match against (Marin) Cilic, I allowed my opponent to come back to the match. Overall I’m just really glad to reach another Wimbledon final.”
The Serbian praised his opponent, who was the junior champion at the All England Club six years ago.
“He has quality shots, especially running forehand, and he has a great touch,” said Djokovic.
“He plays equally well when he’s aggressive and when he’s defending. He has improved immensely in the last six to eight months and you can see by his results. It’s a good win for me.”
Tomorrow Djokovic will bid for his first grand slam title since the Australian Open in 2013. He said: “I have lost the last couple of grand slam finals and all these matches I could have won. It’s the Wimbledon final, the biggest event we have in the sport.”