Commentary

Djokovic pulls through on big stage

Experience pays for world No. 1 player in epic five-set win in US Open semifinals

Updated: September 7, 2013, 9:02 PM ET
By Jane McManus | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Novak Djokovic arrived on Arthur Ashe Stadium court for a semifinal match with Stanislas Wawrinka having lost just one set and five service games. But this match had five-setter written all over it, and it did not disappoint.

Slated for a noon start, the late afternoon sun was casting long shadows over the court before Djokovic outlasted the fatiguing ninth-seeded Wawrinka 2-6, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 to reach the US Open final Monday.

"These matches are what we live for," said the No. 1 Djokovic, who won the tournament in 2011.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesMake that seven straight hard-court Grand Slam finals for Novak Djokovic.
By the end of the first set, Djokovic had been broken twice and swapped out rackets. By the second, he was having a discussion with the racket and the ball before rallying to win a tiebreaker. By the third, he swapped rackets twice more from his clown car of a gear bag, and by the fourth, he was finding his second wind.

"I sincerely believed that as the match progresses and longer it goes, I felt I have maybe that physical edge over him," Djokovic said, "and that I also, being in particularly these kind of matches and situations, playing on a big stage in semifinals, maybe that experience could give me a little bit more of confidence on the court mentally also."

That's not to say Wawrinka was merely a foil in his first trip to a Grand Slam semifinal, and he expressed his own on-court frustrations. The Swiss player received a ball-abuse penalty and then smashed his racket into a few bits, needed a fourth-set medical timeout for a thigh strain and, after missing a shot in the fifth set, punched himself in the head.

"Today I had the feeling when I was still fit, when I was still healthy, I had the match in control," Wawrinka said. "I think I was playing better than him. I was doing much more things than him. But he's not No. 1 for nothing."

It was an epic match -- punctuated by long points and stunning accuracy from Wawrinka -- and the fans didn't wait until the end to show their appreciation.

At the end of the third game in the fifth set, Djokovic was raising his hands as the crowd gave them a standing ovation during a 21-minute game. Wawrinka -- who had fought off five break points -- paused, smiled then served and won the game with the 29th point to hold and remain on serve 2-1.

"It was quite moving, quite fun to see that," Wawrinka said.

Like everyone else, the Serbian thought whoever won that game would win the match, so when Djokovic lost, he had to figure out another narrative.

"Wawrinka was a better player for most of the better part of the match because he was aggressive and played better tennis," Djokovic said.

But Wawrinka's right leg weakened his shot-making into the fourth and fifth sets, and the top seed took advantage. With his first serve back in his arsenal, Djokovic won in 4 hours, 9 minutes, and after, he and Wawrinka met at the net and hugged like old friends.

[+] EnlargeStanislas Wawrinka
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesStanislas Wawrinka played his heart out, but he falls to 0-13 against top-ranked players.
"I have this great kind of feeling and atmosphere that goes around US Open," the 26-year-old Djokovic said. "I love the energy here."

Wawrinka wasn't some beneficiary of a lucky draw. The 28-year-old, who arrived on court with a thin layer of white sunscreen smeared across his cheeks, has a one-handed backhand that was tricky for both Djokovic and quarterfinal opponent No. 3 Andy Murray to handle. In April, Wawrinka began working with former player Magnus Norman, and this win would have been his fifth straight over a top-five player.

With Djokovic up 4-1 in the fourth, Wawrinka went into the locker room during a medical timeout and was treated for an upper right thigh strain. After the match, Wawrinka said he sustained the strain earlier in the tournament and, when he felt it in the first set against Djokovic, knew he would have a difficult time winning if the match went long.

He began to cramp again after he was interviewed in French.

Even if Wawrinka isn't as familiar to tennis audiences as Murray, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, he has been climbing up the rankings since finding his new coach, reaching the top 10 for the first time since 2008.

At the Australian Open, Wawrinka pushed Djokovic, who ultimately won the title, to a 12-10 fifth set before ceding the match.

Even though he was stronger Saturday, a matter that Djokovic conceded immediately, Wawrinka is not yet the better player.

"Over the years, playing a lot of five-set matches, especially here on Arthur Ashe, I was more than successful here," Djokovic said. "So that's something that is always in the back of my mind when I come to the fifth set."

Jane McManus has covered New York sports since 1998 and began covering football just before Brett Favre's stint with the Jets. Her work has appeared in Newsday, USA Today, The Journal News and The New York Times. Follow Jane on Twitter.

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.


EDITORS' PICKS