WIMBLEDON, England – For 368 points, for five sets, for a record 4 hours, 43 minutes — most quite marvelous, all with a berth in the Wimbledon final at stake — Novak Djokovic of Serbia and Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina 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 (7-2), 6-7 (6-8), 6-3 Friday to close in on a second Wimbledon championship and seventh major title overall.
“Unbelievable to watch,” said del Potro.
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“Draining,” said Djokovic, who has won 10 of his last 12 five-setters. “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.
Murray rallied from a set down, then a break down in the third, and got past 24th-seeded Jerzy Janowicz of Poland 6-7 (2-7), 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. The exception was last month’s French Open, which Murray skipped because of a bad back.
Last September, Murray defeated Djokovic in five sets at the U.S. Open to earn the first major title anywhere for a British man since Fred Perry at that tournament in 1936 — months after Perry’s historic win at Wimbledon. In January, Djokovic beat Murray at the Australian Open. Now they will settle things at the All England Club.
Born a week apart in May 1987, and with similar styles that rely on terrific returning and successful defense at the baseline, they are creating a growing rivalry, one that could someday belong alongside Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal, and Nadal vs. Federer. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic divvied up 31 of the last 33 major titles. The exceptions were at the U.S. Open in New York, for Murray in 2012 and del Potro in 2009.
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.
Del Potro won the last time they played, in March, and also the only other time they faced each other at the All England Club, for the bronze medal at last year’s London Olympics. But neither of those was at a Grand Slam tournament, and Djokovic plays his best when the stage is the biggest.
A harbinger of things to come, the first set was as tight as could be for 11½ games and 52 minutes, packed with thunderous strokes by both men — the crowd gasped loudly at some of the hardest — and Djokovic’s trademark scrambling, sliding defense. His legs stretched so far, he often did the splits; sometimes, he slipped and fell.
Del Potro covered plenty of ground, too, his 6-foot-6 frame carrying him to balls most men couldn’t reach, even though his left knee was heavily wrapped in white tape because he hyperextended it during a tumble in the third round.
And then, in a four-point blink with del Potro serving while down 5-4, the opening set changed. Djokovic’s relentless defense kept forcing del Potro to hit an extra shot, and from 30-love, Djokovic hit a backhand winner and used a drop shot that drew a netted reply, then watched as del Potro missed a backhand long and a forehand wide.
“I hit many winners in one point,” del Potro lamented later, “and always, the ball comes back.”
Djokovic was ever-so-slightly better, surprisingly hitting more aces, 22-4. Repeatedly, Djokovic managed to return del Potro’s 130 mph serves.
A 123 mph service winner set up Djokovic’s third match point, and this time he made it count, delivering a backhand winner down the line.
“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 finals in Grand Slam tournaments.
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.
Past 8:30 p.m. during the third set, tournament officials decided to close the roof and turn on the artificial lights, a 30-minute break Murray argued against. When play resumed, though, he was the far better player.
• No. 15 Marion Bartoli of France faces No. 23 Sabine Lisicki of Germany in the women’s final Saturday at 6 a.m. PDT.