NEW YORK (AP) — 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.
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