By Pritha Sarkar
In the end, an exhausted, sweat-soaked Novak Djokovic could not stop himself from joining 15,000 hollering fans in giving Argentine warrior Juan Martin Del Potro a standing ovation after an epic display of courage and endurance at Wimbledon on Friday.
The Serb will now face Britain’s Andy Murray in Sunday’s final, who held his nerve to tame Jerzy Janowicz 6-7(2) 6-4 6-4 6-3 in the day’s other semi.
A contest that many feared would last only a few minutes after Del Potro damaged his knee so badly that he “came close to quitting” two days ago, went into surreal territory as Djokovic relied on his survival instincts to reach the final with a rousing 7-5 4-6 7-6(2) 6-7(6) 6-3 win.
At four hours 43 minutes, it was the longest semi-final ever played at the All England Club and while the scoreline showed that the Serbian world number one had emerged victorious, for all those lucky enough to be on Centre Court, there were no losers.
“It was one of my best matches I’ve been a part of, one of the most exciting. It was so close,” the 2011 champion said after being stretched to his fifth five-hour marathon within the space of 18 months.
“I could not separate us. That was one of the best matches I’ve played here, it was at such a high level. I’m just privileged to be the winner of this match.”
Del Potro’s gutsy display won him a new legion of global fans, but that was little consolation for the eighth seed as for the second time in less than a year, he suffered a heartbreak of epic proportions on Centre Court.
Eleven months after falling to Roger Federer in the Olympic semi-final, which ended 19-17 in the third set after four hours 26 minutes, Del Potro was again left deflated.
“I think it was unbelievable to watch but, of course, I’m sad because I lost and I was close to beating him,” said the man nicknamed as the Tower of Tandil.
American great John McEnroe said the 6-foot-6 Del Potro should hold his head up high.
“That was one of the greatest matches of all time,” he said. “Del Potro has so much to be proud of, I’ve never seen him give so much.”
A man who lay on the famous green turf writhing in pain just five points into his quarter-final against David Ferrer seemed to have emerged with a bionic left knee yesterday, albeit heavily strapped.
If Djokovic had hoped to inflict more pain on Del Potro and quickly deliver the killer blow in the semi-final, he was in for a rude shock.
Instead, it was Djokovic who was left with battered knees, sore elbows and a bruised stomach as Del Potro’s brutal forehand sent him diving and lunging around court – often in vain.
So monstrous was Del Potro’s forehand that it often produced a murderous thud as it flew off his racket. If there was a speed gun around to measuring the velocity of his forehand, it would probably have been off the radar.
The sixth game of the match gave a taster of what was to come as it featured a scorching 24-shot rally, five deuces, two double faults, one break point before the Argentine answered a booming cry of “Come on Del Boy” to hold on. Djokovic finally broke in the 12th game of the first set to win it 7-5 but former US Open winner Del Potro took the Serbian’s serve midway through the second set and levelled the match.
Del Potro saved three set points at 5-6 in the third, but Djokovic stepped up his level to romp through the tiebreak 7-2. The top seed struck again with a break in the seventh game of the fourth set but Del Potro broke straight back and saved two match points in an incredible tiebreak before taking it 8-6.
Djokovic broke again to lead 5-3 in the deciding set and he recovered from 0-30 down to seal victory with a searing backhand down the line.
For his part, Murray recovered from the disappointment of losing the first set to beat 24th seed Janowicz in two hours and 52 minutes on Centre Court.
The first set was dominated by serve, but Janowicz was inspired in the tiebreak and powered through it 7-2.
Murray broke the giant Pole in the first game of the second set and he clung on to his own serve to level the match.
Janowicz broke early in the third set and led 4-1 but Murray drew inspiration from the home crowd and won five games in a row to take it 6-4.
The roof on Centre Court was closed, halting Murray’s momentum to his obvious displeasure, but the Briton broke for a 2-1 lead in the fourth and he took Janowicz’s serve again to reach his second successive Wimbledon final.