Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro’s Wimbledon semifinal was supposed to be the warm-up act, but the two Grand Slam champions ended up stealing the show.
Their epic match, which saw world No. 1 Djokovic prevail 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (7-2), 6-7 (6-8), 6-3, was the longest semifinal in the storied history of Wimbledon. It lasted a jaw-dropping four hours and 43 minutes.
He moves on to face Andy Murray, and a likely partisan London crowd, in the final on Sunday.
Unlike most long matches, there were no lulls or dips in play in Djokovic-Del Potro. It was physical, top-notch, standing-ovation-producing tennis from start to finish. There were 64 rallies of over nine shots, an absolutely unheard-of statistic on the grass courts that encourage strike-first tennis.
It was a see-saw affair from first strike to last. Djokovic stepped up at the end of the first set to take it, and then del Potro seized his chance in the middle of the second to even things up. During the rare occasions that either man took his eye off the prize for a second, the other was there to pounce.
The third set alone lasted 69 minutes, or the approximate time of the Marion Bartoli vs. Kirsten Flipkens semifinal.
Djokovic's backhand down-the-line shot that is usually his bread and butter was struggling, mainly due to the power and precision of del Potro. At times it seemed like Djokovic was hitting tennis balls across the net and del Potro was returning bullets.
“Without a doubt, the most physical match I have ever seen on grass….” says Brad Gilbert on ESPN of Djokovic vs. Delpo #Wimbledon semifinal— Randy Walker (@TennisPublisher) July 5, 2013
Each guy had his back against the wall at different points in the match but kept digging deep and coming up with greatness on top of greatness to keep the match going. Djokovic went up a break in the fourth, but del Potro took it right back. Djokovic had two match points in the fourth-set tiebreak; del Potro saved them with absolute magic.
It took until midway through the fifth set for Djokovic to get the break he would need to take him back to the Wimbledon final, and even that didn't seem like it would be enough until he finally found his backhand down the line on his third match point.
Del Potro: "I was so close to be in the finals here in Wimbledon. I think I played really good tennis. He plays better." #wimbledon— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) July 5, 2013
It was a legendary win for Djokovic and by far the best match he has ever been a part of on the hallowed lawns of Wimbledon.
The Serb has always said that this tournament means the most to him, as it's the one he grew up dreaming of as a child. But he's had some of his most off-kilter matches on Centre Court, and there were times during this semifinal when it looked like heartbreak might find him again.
But once again he proved why he's the best player in the world right now. He simply never gives up. Djokovic has now made nine of the last 12 Grand Slam finals, a mind-boggling feat in such a generation.
As for del Potro, it was a privilege to see the 2009 U.S. Open champion back playing his best tennis. To say he has been missed on the big stages would be an understatement. His forehand is frame-worthy, his lumbering yet limber movement is awe-inspiring and his courage is that of a battle-tested fighter.
The best news of all is that del Potro is only 24 years old and will hopefully be able to produce this level of tennis for years to come. His gentle, goofy yet steel-hearted demeanor has captivated the tennis world once again this fortnight. Tennis is simply a better sport when he's a part of it.
Novak Djokovic was the winner, as he kept battling back time and time again to make it to the second Wimbledon final of his career.
But really, tennis was the winner. Just when you think that this generation of men's tennis might be hitting a lull with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal crashing out early, these two proved that there is enough greatness to go around.