The quality that a player has to employ to take out Novak Djokovic in a five-set match keeps rising. Juan Martin Del Potro played one of the best matches ever and certainly found his highest level ever of grass and still couldn’t stop the Serbian in a 7-5 4-6 7-6(2) 6-7(6) 6-3 defeat in the Wimbledon semis on Friday.
He will face Andy Murray in the final, who outfought Jerzy Janowicz 6-7(2) 6-4 6-4 6-3 in match that was filled with controversy after the roof was closed at the end of the third set, but ended rather quietly when Murray put on a clinic in the fourth set. The Scot has reached the final of the last four majors he’s contested, and he has already faced Djokovic in two of them, a win the in the 2012 US Open final and a loss in the 2013 Australian Open final.
Djokovic versus Del Potro was the longest semifinal ever played at Wimbledon — four hours and 43 minutes — and it was one of the most exciting matches ever played on the lawns, with the tall Argentine trying to plaster big serves and forehands past the speedy backboard of a Serbian. Del Potro, stretched, he dove, he nailed winners on the run. He returned very well for man who usually has trouble doing so and struck his backhand flat and deep enough so that Djokovic couldn’t pick on that side.
He fought off match points in the fourth set and he had a couple of looks in the fifth set, but in the end it was the superior player who came through again. Djokovic is not much better than Del Potro when the Argentine is on, but he’s still a little better. He has an ocean of a mental and physical reserve, he’s incredibly solid off both wings, he can serve well in the clutch and is the most competent return of server on the planet.
Most importantly in this contest, when the crowd was roaring in support and praising Del Potro’s durability, Djokovic knew how to ride the wave of the epic five setter, while Del Potro doesn’t quite know how.
“I was so close to be at the finals here in Wimbledon,” said Del Potro, who has lost his last four five-setters. “But I knew my opponent. I think I play really good tennis during four hours and a half, and he plays better because he won the match. But was a really high-level match during four hours. He hit so hard the ball. I think was unbelievable to watch, but, of course, I’m sad because I lost and I was close to beat him. And in the end, I think he play unbelievable. I know is the way to beat this kind of player, but is not enough. You can see I play my best tennis ever on grass court from a long time, but was not enough to beat the No. 1 in the world. I was so close… I need to hit harder my forehands the next time.”
In his past eight Grand Slams Djokovic has contested seven epics, all of which are worth watching on replay. He’s lost three of them, but it’s ingrained in him what he has to do respond. He just lost a 9-7 in the fifth set classic to Rafa Nadal in the Roland Garros semis. He won a 12-10 in the fifth classic over Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round of the 2013 Aussie Open, lost 6-2 in the fifth to Andy Murray in the 2012 US Open final, beat Jo Tsonga 6-1 in the fifth in the 2012 Roland Garros quarters, took down Federer and Nadal 7-5 in the fifth set in the semis and final of the 2012 Aussie Open (with the Nadal win being a record 5 hours and 53 minutes); and beat Roger Federer 7-5 in the fifth set of the 2011 US Open. His matches have been front and center of the men’s Grand Slam highlight reel.
“I know that when we get to the fifth set, when I play a top player at the later stages of a major event especially, this is where your physical strength but also mental ability to stay tough can, decide the winner of that match,” Djokovic said. “I was disappointed that I didn’t finish the match before in fourth set. But knowing that I have a chance, more chance of staying longer in the rally with him, and just as the match goes on I felt like physically I’m fit and, I can go a long way. So that’s something that gave me that mental advantage. In the end I managed to prevail.”
Djokovic’s epic 5 setters, 2011-2013
2013 Wimbledon: Defeats Juan Martin Del Potro 7-5 4-6 7-6(2) 6-7(6) 6-3
QUOTE: “There are moments in the match when you have doubts, when you think, you know, maybe you’re hesitating a little bit. Then you have moments when you’re full of confidence. That’s what goes through a human mind. It’s normal. You have ups and downs. That’s the way the lifecycle goes.”
2013 Roland Garros semis: Loses to Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7(3), 9-7.
QUOTE: “It’s been an unbelievable match to be a part of, but all I can feel now is disappointment; that’s it. I congratulate my opponent because he showed the courage in the right moments and went for his shots and, you know, when he was a break down in the fifth, he made some incredible shots from the baseline.”
2013 Aussie Open, 4th round: Defeats Stan Wawrinka 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7(5), 12-10
QUOTE: “He never gave me the same ball. He was aggressive from both sides. I didn’t know what’s coming up next. So I’m just really full of joy after this match.”
2012 US Open final: Loses to Andy Murray 7-6(10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2
QUOTE: “I’m disappointed to lose the match, but in the back of my mind I knew that I gave it all. I really, really tried to fight my way back through. I had a great opponent today. He deserved to win this Grand Slam more than anybody, because over the years he’s been a top player. He’s been so close; lost four finals. Now he has won it, so I would like to congratulate him. Definitely happy that he won it.”
2012 Roland Garros quarters: Beats Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-1, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6(6), 6-1 (fights off four match points)
QUOTE: “Tennis is very mental. Lots of emotions If you’re playing a top player, a home favorite, and you have a crowd that’s supporting him, you have to face these things. Physically, we’re all fit, all hitting the ball well. But mentally, it’s just a matter of a point here, a point there. That’s sport. The one that mentally pushes more in some moments – and gets a bit lucky – gets the win.”
2012 Ausralian Open semis: beat Andy Murray 6-3, 3-6, 6-7(4), 6-1, 7-5
“I think we both went through a physical crisis. Him at the fourth set, me all the way through the second and midway through the third. Had some chances in those sets. But it was a very even match throughout. But I held my composure. I was happy to react the way I did and win in the end.
2012 Australian Open final: Beats Rafael Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5
QUOTE: “This one I think comes out on the top because just the fact that we played almost six hours is incredible, incredible. I think it’s probably the longest finals in the history of all Grand Slams, and just to hear that fact is making me cry, really. I’m very proud just to be part of this history, part of the elite of the players that have won this tournament for several times, and I was very flattered to be playing in front of Rod Laver, in front of the all‑time greats, and in front of 15,000 people that stayed until 1:30 a.m. It’s incredible, really.”
2011 US Open Semis: Beats Roger Federer 6-7(7), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 [fights off two match points]
QUOTE: “It is under the circumstances, the greatest victory I had in 2011. Because I was two sets down, and I haven’t won many matches in my life when I was two sets down. Especially against Roger, who we all are aware of his quality. When he’s a set or two sets up, he doesn’t let you win. When he’s in control of the match he’s confident, and it’s really hard to get back into the match. But I managed to play better, to switch gears, and I managed to play two incredible sets: third and fourth. Then I felt it’s the moment when I should step in and show what I got, and it paid off.”