NEW YORK — The game that will be talked about for years and years required 198 strokes, 30 points, and 21 minutes to decide. Entire sets have taken less.
It might be easy to conclude that Novak Djokovic won his tense, topsy-turvy U.S. Open semifinal against Stanislas Wawrinka despite dropping that epic third game of the fifth set. The truth is that the 2011 champion emerged with a 2-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 victory in 4 hours, 9 minutes on Saturday at least in part because of the one that got away.
“Even though I lost that game, I felt like, ‘OK, he’s getting a little bit more tired, and maybe this is my chance to step in,’” Djokovic said. “And that’s what I (did).”
The No. 1-seeded Djokovic will play No. 2 Rafael Nadal on Monday. It’s their record 37th match against each other, their sixth Grand Slam final, and their third meeting for the championship at Flushing Meadows since 2010. Nadal was a 6-4, 7-6 (1), 6-2 winner over No. 8 Richard Gasquet of France in Saturday’s second semifinal, which was far less competitive than the first.
Indeed, the tennis and theatrics at 1-all in the last set alone of Djokovic-Wawrinka were so compelling that the game was interrupted twice by standing ovations.
By then, Wawrinka’s strained right thigh had been taped after a medical timeout in the fourth set (he would be seized by cramps during his postmatch news conference). Still, he managed to erase five break points and navigate 12 deuces until finally delivering a 123 mph service winner to hold for a 2-1 edge. He stepped gingerly to the sideline, plopped down in his chair and smiled.
That grin remained in place throughout the two-minute changeover. If the ninth-seeded Wawrinka was enjoying the moment, perhaps feeling a tad relieved, Djokovic was ever more determined. He responded by taking the next three games, propelling himself to a fourth consecutive title match at Flushing Meadows and fifth since 2007.
“I was already quite tired,” said Wawrinka, who won the same number of points in the match as Djokovic, 165. “I was already quite dead physically.”
During his on-court interview, Djokovic took the microphone and posed a question: “How long was that game?”
He was told the answer, repeated it, then chuckled.
“Well, I was thinking — I guess everybody was thinking — ‘Whoever wins this game is going to win the match,’” the six-time major champion told the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium. “After he won the game, I thought to myself, ‘OK, I guess I have to fight against those odds.’”
The current version of Djokovic, the one who recently published a book about diet and fitness, is nothing if not dogged, able to withstand even the most dire of circumstances. It’s why he managed to set aside match points and come back to beat Roger Federer in the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Open semifinals. It’s why he was able to beat Nadal in a 2012 Australian Open final that lasted nearly six hours. It’s why he was able to win the longest Wimbledon semifinal in history.
“At the end, he pushed me,” Wawrinka said. “Pushed me far, far, far.”
Nothing quite that dramatic occurred when 12-time major champion Nadal played Gasquet, who was in his first Grand Slam semifinal since 2007. The most newsworthy moment of their match came right at the 1-hour mark, when Nadal let a forehand drift long to get broken and make it 2-all in the second set. That allowed Gasquet to become the first player to break Nadal’s serve in the entire tournament, ending a run of 73 holds.
There were five other break points for Gasquet, but Nadal saved each while stretching his hard-court record in 2013 to 21-0. A year after missing the U.S. Open because of a bad left knee, Nadal is looking as fit and as impressive as ever.
“I don’t know if it’s a victory to (break) his serve. I’m not sure about it. I think it’s better to win one set or more,” said Gasquet, now 0-11 against Nadal.
In the past, the U.S. Open was the only Grand Slam tournament to schedule the men’s semifinals Saturday and the final Sunday, instead of having a day of rest in between. This year, the tournament scrapped that plan and built in an extra 24 hours.
As it is, Djokovic said he “didn’t find it very fair” that he needed to play at noon Saturday after finishing his quarterfinal at about 11 p.m. Thursday. Nadal and Gasquet played their quarterfinals Wednesday.
“I didn’t find any logic in that, to be honest,” Djokovic said. “But, again, there are some other, I guess, influences that have more power than players, and this has to be changed.”
On Sunday, while Nadal and Djokovic rest and prepare, No. 1 Serena Williams will play No. 2 Victoria Azarenka for the women’s championship. It’s the first time both U.S. Open singles finals are 1-2 matchups since 1996.
Nadal is 21-15 against Djokovic, but said when they play, it “becomes a very difficult match for both of us.
Nadal said he’d rather face a less-formidable foe, because wanting to play someone as good as Djokovic would be “stupid.”
Djokovic, meanwhile, called trying to beat Nadal “the biggest challenge that you can have in our sport now.”
Dealing with Djokovic and his sliding, arm-stretching defense is no day at the beach, either.
Wearing white sunscreen slathered across his cheeks and nose on a sunny afternoon, Wawrinka produced a performance that was fairly similar to the net-rushing surprise he pulled off against defending champion Andy Murray in the quarterfinals. Wawrinka could sense jitters early from Djokovic, who acknowledged afterward he was nervous.
That seemed odd, because Djokovic was playing in his 14th consecutive Grand Slam semifinal, the second-longest streak in history, and 21st overall. Wawrinka — long in the shadow of Federer, his Swiss Olympic teammate and good friend — was in his first. And yet it was Djokovic who double-faulted four times as part of his 14 unforced errors in the first set, while getting broken three times.
Djokovic was fraying at the edges. He hit a ball in anger after losing a point, drawing jeers from the stands. He whacked his racket against each arm after a missed backhand return. He kept chatting with his coach, Marian Vajda, and eventually was cited by the chair umpire for a code violation (coaching is not allowed during matches; Djokovic admitted he deserved the warning). When a fan called out right before he netted a backhand, Djokovic raised an arm and yelled, “Shut up!”
It didn’t help matters that Wawrinka kept finding the mark with his booming serves, which reached 138 mph, his effective forehand and his sweet, one-handed backhand, to the tune of 57 winners, 19 more than Djokovic.
“Today I had the feeling that when I was playing my best level, I was better than him,” said Wawrinka, who entered the day 2-12 against Djokovic. “But he’s not No. 1 for nothing. That’s why he won the match, because he always finds a solution.”
Slowly but surely Djokovic found ways to bother Wawrinka, in part by forcing more errors off his forehand wing, in part by serving better himself. Wawrinka began showing signs of mental and physical fatigue. There was the problem with his right leg. He swatted a ball toward the upper deck, earning a warning, and later was docked a point for spiking his racket, picking it up and bending it over his knee to completely wreck the frame.
Wawrinka egged on fans to get louder and clap longer, soaking it all in — and getting a bit of a chance to catch his breath. Djokovic at first seemed annoyed, before he, too, waved for more noise.
Two games later, a sequence of errors by Wawrinka, capped by a weary backhand, let Djokovic break for a 3-2 lead.
“I managed to stay tough and play well when I needed to,” Djokovic said. “That’s something that definitely encourages me before the final.”