Back in Wimbledon final, Djokovic to face Italy’s Berrettini

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Italy’s Matteo Berrettini celebrates winning a point during the men’s singles semifinals match against Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz on day eleven of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London, Friday, July 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — The victories keep adding up for Novak Djokovic: 20 in a row at Wimbledon since the start of the 2018 tournament, 20 in a row in all Grand Slam matches since the start of this season.

Get both streaks up to 21 on Sunday by beating Matteo Berrettini in the final at the All England Club, and Djokovic will tie rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with a 20th major championship, the most for a man in tennis history.

“It would mean everything,” the No. 1-ranked Djokovic said. “That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m playing.”

He worked his way in and out of trouble against a much younger, much-less-experienced opponent Friday until eliminating No. 10 Denis Shapovalov 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-5 in the semifinals at Centre Court.

Each set was tight and intense. Each appeared to be within Shapovalov’s grasp — until it was in Djokovic’s.

“He was serving for first set. He was better for most of the second set; had a lot of opportunities and just didn’t manage to close it out when he needed to,” said Djokovic, who at 34 is 12 years older than Shapovalov. “In important moments, I think I probably held my nerves better than he did and just (made) him play an extra shot, (made) him do an unforced error.”

Djokovic made just 15 unforced errors, Shapovalov 36. The other key stats: Djokovic saved 5 of 5 break points in the second set, then 3 of 3 in the third.

“What hurt so much this time was just that I felt like the game is there and it’s possible to go and play for the trophy,” said Shapovalov, who walked off in tears after falling to 0-7 against Djokovic. “It’s a feeling I’ve never had before, so that’s why it just hurt so much. I felt like I was outplaying Novak in parts of the match. If you’re outplaying Novak, you can beat anyone.”

So true. Now another new-to-these-stages foe, No. 7 seed Berrettini, will give it a shot.

Cries of “Vai!” (Go!), “Forza!” (Let’s go!) and even “Andiamo, amore mio!” (Let’s go, my love!) rang through the All England Club’s main stadium earlier, supporting Berrettini in his native tongue on his way to becoming Italy’s first Grand Slam male finalist in 45 years.

With booming serves delivering 22 aces, and powerful forehands helping compile a total of 60 winners, Berrettini used an 11-game run to grab a big lead and held on to beat No. 14 Hubert Hurkacz 6-3, 6-0, 6-7 (3), 6-4.

Djokovic is trying to collect a sixth championship at Wimbledon — and third straight — to go along with nine from the Australian Open, three from the U.S. Open and two from the French Open.

And then there’s this: After collecting trophies on the hard courts of Melbourne Park in February, and the red clay of Roland Garros in June — defeating Berrettini in the quarterfinals there — Djokovic seeks a triumph on the grass of the All England Club to get three-quarters of the way to a calendar-year Grand Slam, with only the U.S. Open remaining.

No man has pulled off that three-title stretch within one year — let alone all four — since Rod Laver won the Grand Slam in 1969.

This will be Djokovic’s 30th major final, Berrettini’s first. Much as it was Djokovic’s 41st major semifinal, Shapovalov’s first.

“Obviously, the job is not done yet,” said the 25-year-old Berrettini, who lost his only previous Slam semifinal, at the 2019 U.S. Open. “I want to get the trophy now that I’m here.”

He owns an 11-match winning streak on grass courts, including the title at the Queen’s Club tuneup last month, when he became the first man since Boris Becker in 1985 to win the trophy in his debut at that event.

“Matteo played (an) unbelievable match,” said Hurkacz, who arrived at Wimbledon on a six-match losing streak but beat Federer and No. 2 Daniil Medvedev to reach his first Slam semifinal. “I didn’t have many chances, basically. Probably zero.”

When he got broken for the first time, the 24-year-old from Poland sat for the ensuing changeover and, between bites of a banana, motioned to his American coach, Craig Boynton, to adjust the seating arrangements in their guest box. As if that were the issue.

Cheered from the stands by his girlfriend, Ajla Tomljanovic, who made it to the quarterfinals this week, and his parents and brother — Mom captured his on-court interview with her cellphone — Berrettini was two points from winning in the third set.

But Hurkacz extended the contest to an extra set, before Berrettini asserted himself again.

A lefty with a vibrant, sometimes violent, swing, including when it comes to his one-handed backhand, Shapovalov kept pushing Djokovic to the brink, but couldn’t quite get the job done.

That backhand forced a Djokovic error to conclude a 15-stroke exchange that provided Shapovalov with a break and a 2-1 edge. He stretched that to 5-3 and was two points from taking the set in the next game, but couldn’t get closer.

Serving for the set at 5-4, Shapovalov faltered — pushed by Djokovic’s indefatigable defense.

Djokovic broke, then was better in the tiebreaker. Not perfect, but better.

Mostly playing it safe and letting Shapovalov err worked just fine. Shapovalov double-faulted to end that set. He did so again to get broken to trail 6-5 in the second. And again in the game that left him behind 6-5 in the third.

By then, Djokovic was punching the air and shouting, knowing the match’s end, and another final, was near. ___

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