Novak Djokovic goes the distance to reach Wimbledon final

Novak Djokovic of Serbia tries to play a return to Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina  during their Men's singles semifinal match at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships in Wimbledon, London, Friday, July 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Jonathan Brady)
Novak Djokovic of Serbia tries to play a return to Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina during their Men's singles semifinal match at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships in Wimbledon, London, Friday, July 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Jonathan Brady)

LONDON — 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 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 on Friday to close in on a second Wimbledon championship and seventh Grand Slam title.

“Unbelievable to watch,” del Potro said.

“Draining,” said Djokovic, who has won 10 of his past 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 a victory away. He came back from a set down, then a break down in the third and got past No. 24 seed Jerzy Janowicz 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.

The exception was last month’s French Open, which Murray skipped with 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’ll 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 that could someday belong alongside Nadal vs. Federer. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have divvied up 31 of the past 33 Grand Slam titles. The exceptions were at Flushing Meadows — Murray in 2012 and del Potro in ’09.

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, 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 and Djokovic’s trademark scrambling, sliding defense. His legs stretched so far that 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.

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.”

But he did not despair. He kept coming, earning a break and taking the second set, providing plenty of entertainment along the way.

When his momentum from chasing a backhand carried him all the way to the stands, del Potro stood on the green wall and high-fived a spectator. After diving for a volley, he stayed down on his back, arms and legs spread far apart, then waved his hands over his chest, as if to say, “No mas!”

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.”

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.