LONDON (Reuters) - Novak Djokovic showed that Wimbledon was no place for a 35-year-old warrior as he beat battle-scarred Czech Radek Stepanek 6-4 6-3 6-7(5) 7-6(5) in a hugely entertaining contest to reach the third round of Wimbledon on Wednesday.
Bidding to become the oldest man to reach the third round at the All England Club since 2007, Stepanek tried practically every shot known to mankind, and then some, as he tried to topple the top seed.
His lunging forehands drew wild applause, his silky volleys had the purists purring and his crowd-pleasing shot-selection left fans hollering but all Stepanek had to show for his efforts was a bloodied right knee and the memories of a standing ovation.
“He’s 35 years-old but he’s moving very well and he performs really well on the big stage. He loves to engage the crowd, he’s an entertainer,” a hugely relieved Djokovic said after subduing his friend.
”It was fun from one side to be part of a great thrilling match but on the other side I should not have complicated my own life in this way. Credit to him for playing well on the important moments. “Glad I hung in there mentally and managed to win the match.”
As one of the fittest athletes in world sport, it was little wonder the Serb was left cursing his luck when he let a 5-2 lead in the third set tiebreak slip through his sweaty fingers.
A backhand long on set point allowed Stepanek to dream that an upset was in the offing and when Djokovic sportingly conceded a point while holding advantage at 5-5 in the fourth set, 15,000 fans held their collective breath wondering if the gesture would come back to haunt the Serb.
The 2011 champion survived that scare but Stepanek was not done.
Lunging and diving after almost every ball in the tiebreak - emulating a move mastered by Djokovic’s coach Boris Becker during his heyday - Stepanek again set pulses racing as he fought back from 5-2 down to level at 5-5.
Two points later, Djokovic hit a screaming crosscourt that appeared to seal the match but Stepanek was not convinced.
Challenging the call, he comically pressed his palms together and knelt down on the grass as he waited for Hawkeye’s verdict.
Djokovic’s roar into the skies confirmed the way the call had gone.
“As soon as we come out on court we want to win against each other but it’s true we are friends off the court and practice (together a lot). We know each other’s game really well,” the six-times grand slam champion said after beating the Czech for the 11th time in 12 meetings. “I was two sets up, I had some break points in the third, should have closed it out in the third set tiebreaker but credit to him for fighting.”
By dousing the antics of a man who entertained Wimbledon for more than 3-1/4 hours, Djokovic set up a third round meeting with Frenchman Gilles Simon.
Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Mark Meadows