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 Friday to close in on a second Wimbledon championship and seventh Grand Slam title overall.
“Unbelievable to watch,” said del Potro.
“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. 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. 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’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, 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 Grand Slam titles. The exceptions were at Flushing Meadows, 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.
“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, meanwhile, has won 17 grass-court matches in a row, and 23 of 24, including his London Olympic gold medal. He hung in there when Janowicz was smacking 140 mph serves and taking a 4-1 lead in the third set, then rallied ... and now, he’s back in the finals for the second straight year.
“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.”
• No. 15 Marion Bartoli vs. No. 23 Sabine Lisicki, 8 a.m. Saturday
• No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 2 Andy Murray, 8 a.m. Sunday
Note: Both matches will be televised on ESPN