WIMBLEDON -- In a semifinal match that will be remembered for the valor of both players and the astonishingly high quality of tennis over a record 4 hours 43 minutes, top-seeded Novak Djokovic of Serbia held off an injured but persistent Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina to win a place in Sunday’s final.
Djokovic’s 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (6), 6-3 victory on Center Court was great theater and great tennis. It was the first time either man had dropped a set in the tournament and it featured an incredible variety of twists and surprises.
Djokovic's opponent in the final will be the winner of the second semifinal between No. 2 Andy Murray of Britain and No. 24 Jerzy Janowicz of Poland. Djokovic has an 11-7 career edge over Murray and has never played Janowicz. Djokovic won the Wimbledon title in 2011.
Although Del Potro, seeded No. 8, had hyperextended his knee in a match last week and needed heavy taping in order to keep going, he moved extremely well on Friday and escaped from numerous jams. He had defeated Djokovic on these grounds in the bronze-medal match of the London Olympic Games a year ago.
“It was one of the best matches that I’ve been a part of. One of the most exciting, definitely,” Djokovic said. “It was so close, really. I couldn’t separate us except when I was two sets to one up and a break and I dropped that serve ....
"That’s why he’s a Grand Slam champion, because every time he’s in a tough situation he comes up with unbelievable shots.
“I’m just very proud to go through.”
In addition to being noteworthy for the high quality of the match, it will be remembered for the sportsmanship both displayed. The two talked occasionally and at a changeover during the third-set tiebreaker they exchanged friendly words, with Djokovic patting Del Potro on the back with his racket and both men smiling.
Del Potro, clearly the fans’ favorite, also ran into the stands at one point in pursuit of a shot and clapped hands with a spectator before returning to the court, which earned him another round of applause.
"I think I play really good tennis during four hours and a half. He plays better because he won the match but it was a really high level match during four hours," Del Potro said. "He hit so hard the ball. I think it was unbelievable to watch but, of course, I’m sad because I lost and I was close to the final."
Although Djokovic had a break point in the sixth game of the first set, the set went according to serve until the 12th game. Del Potro had a 30-0 lead but Djokovic came back to 30-40 and won the game and set when Del Potro hit a forehand long.
Djokovic had two break points in the sixth game of the second set, a very long game that showed each man’s versatility. Del Potro, despite his bandaged knee, still seemed able to get to nearly everything; Djokovic repeatedly slid into shots and did the splits but managed to get back into position. Del Potro held serve in that game to even the set at 3-3 and broke Djokovic’s serve in the next game for a 4-3 lead.
Del Potro held off a break point to take a 5-3 lead and after Djokovic held serve at love, Del Potro served for the set and won the game at love and the set, 6-4.
Del Potro had two break points in the seventh game of the third set but Djokovic held. Djokovic had three set points in the 12th game but Del Potro came back yet again to hold serve and force the tiebreaker. Djokovic dominated the tiebreaker and seemed about to take control of the match but the tireless Del Potro continued to push him in the fourth set.
That set went to a tiebreaker too. Djokovic had his first match point at 6-4, a great, 24-stroke rally that ended when a lob by Djokovic went long. On his second match point Djokovic was frustrated by a cross-court forehand winner by Del Potro.
Del Potro came to the net for a winner and a 7-6 edge, and he won the tiebreaker with a nifty return that sneaked its way over the net and fell onto Djokovic’s side of the court.
Del Potro needed medical attention again early in the fifth set. He got a massage on his left midsection at the break but held on to gain a break point in the fifth game. Djokovic saved that and the game went to deuce three times before Djokovic delivered a service winner to take a 3-2 lead.
Djokovic had some chances to win the sixth game but Del Potro was opportunistic and held on to win it, leaving Djokovic yelling at himself in frustration. Somehow, both maintained a remarkably high level of play as the match passed the 4½-hour mark.
Djokovic broke Del Potro’s serve for a 5-3 lead, helped by a long forehand by Del Potro following a shaky choice of location. Serving for the match, Djokovic finally converted his third match point opportunity with a successful backhand down the line.
Afterward, the two men embraced at the net, their mutual respect obvious and well earned. The crowd applauded enthusiastically, a fitting tribute after a great spectacle.
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