LONDON – For 368 points, for five sets, for a semifinal record 4 hours, 43 minutes — most quite marvelous, all with a berth in the Wimbledon final at stake — Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro put on a memorable show.
Their baseline exchanges were lengthy and intense, accompanied by loud grunts of exertion and exhaustion, punctuated by the thud of racket string against tennis ball.
In the end, as he almost always does lately, Djokovic displayed the stamina and fortitude to win a long-as-can-be match, edging del Potro 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (6), 6-3 Friday to close in on a second Wimbledon championship and seventh Grand Slam title overall.
“Unbelievable to watch,” said del Potro.
“Draining,” said Djokovic. “One of the most exciting matches I’ve ever played in my life.”
Folks around here felt just as euphoric about Friday’s second semifinal, even if it was far less competitive or compelling. Britain has waited 77 years for one of its own to claim the men’s trophy at Wimbledon, and for the second consecutive year, Andy Murray is one victory away. He came back from a set down, then a break down in the third, and got past 24th-seeded Jerzy Janowicz of Poland 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 in a match that concluded with Centre Court’s retractable roof shut.
“I was very relieved after the semis last year, whereas this year … I was a bit happier,” said Murray, who lost to seven-time champion Roger Federer in the 2012 final. “I’ll be probably in a better place mentally. I would hope so, just because I’ve been there before.”
On Sunday, the top-ranked Djokovic faces No. 2 Murray, the third time in the past four Grand Slam tournaments they will meet in the final.
Last September, Murray defeated Djokovic in five sets at the U.S. Open. In January, Djokovic beat Murray at the Australian Open. Now they’ll settle things at the All England Club.
On Friday, with the temperature in the 70s and the court bathed in sunlight, Djokovic and del Potro produced a contest worthy of two major champions — the longest semifinal, by time, in Wimbledon history. Theirs also was the first Wimbledon semifinal in the 45-year Open era between two men who hadn’t dropped a set in the tournament.
Midway through the fourth set, Djokovic hit a drop volley that del Potro reached for a down-the-line forehand. The ball landed near a line and was called out. Del Potro walked around the net and approached Djokovic, then the two pals smiled while chatting.
“It was (up) him to decide if he wanted to challenge or not,” recounted Djokovic, the 2011 Wimbledon champion. “I said, ‘Listen, if I was you, I would challenge.’“
The back-and-forth ended with del Potro playfully yanking the zipper on Djokovic’s shirt.
“He’s a good guy, a good friend of mine,” del Potro said. “We have a fantastic relationship. But when we are playing, we want to win, for sure.”
Repeatedly, Djokovic managed to return del Potro’s 130 mph serves.
“I know that I have been pushed to the limit today,” Djokovic said. “This is where your physical strength, but also mental ability to stay tough, can decide the winner.”
Murray is undoubtedly stronger, physically and mentally, today than earlier in his career, when he lost his first four Grand Slam finals.
Including his London Olympic gold medal, Murray has won 17 grass-court matches in a row, and 23 of 24. He hung in there when Janowicz was smacking 140 mph serves and taking a 4-1 lead in the third set.
At 4-2, 30-all, though, Murray hit a forehand that clipped the top of the net and trickled over, setting up a break point. Janowicz then tried a drop shot, and Murray made a long run to reach the ball for a cross-court forehand winner. That was part of a five-game run that gave Murray the third set and momentum — and pumped up the partisan fans.
“Everything basically collapsed after this one point,” explained Janowicz, the first Polish man in a Slam semifinal.
Tournament officials decided at the point to close the roof and turn on the artificial lights, a half-hour break Murray argued against. When play resumed, though, he was far better.
Now Murray has time to think about facing Djokovic and the possibility of a Wimbledon championship.
“I might wake up on Sunday and be unbelievably nervous, more nervous than I ever have been before,” Murray said. “But I wouldn’t expect to be.”