WHAT HAPPENED: They produced spectacular shots, entertained the crowd and played their hearts out through five sets and four hours, nine minutes. In the end, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, despite not being at his best, defeated No. 9 seed Stanislas Wawrinka to reach his fourth consecutive US Open final with a dramatic comeback from a two-sets-to-one deficit, 2-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
It was the second time the two battled for five sets in a Grand Slam this year, having gone five in the round of 16 at the Australian Open before eventual champion Djokovic prevailed 12-10. Their second Slam meeting this year did not disappoint, becoming an instant classic.
Wawrinka, playing in his first career Grand Slam semifinal, came out swinging freely and dominating play, moving well across the court and hitting especially well on his forehand side. It was Djokovic, the six-time Grand Slam singles champion, who came out nervous, struggled with errors early, and was broken in three of his four service games as Wawrinka cruised to a first-set win.
“Wawrinka was a better player for the better part of the match because he was aggressive and played better tennis,” Djokovic said. “I just tried to hang on and fight and be mentally tough and believe all the way through I can actually win. And I sincerely believed that as the match progresses and longer it goes, I felt I have maybe that physical edge over him.”
It turned out he did. Both players came out hitting hard in the second set, engaging in longer rallies as Wawrinka crushed second serves from Djokovic. The Swiss continued to be more aggressive, hitting loose, dictating most of the points, serving better and playing solid defense. Djokovic looked tentative and was more on the defensive, and was broken when he hit a forehand long, giving the Swiss a 3-2 lead.
Wawrinka gave the lead back a few games later and Djokovic began to play much better, stepping into short balls and becoming more aggressive, moving Wawrinka around the court with a solid ground attack, and holding at love to put real pressure on Wawrinka for the first time.
“I knew that he's gonna come out with big backhands and be aggressive,” Djokovic said. “I wasn't managing to find my rhythm. I wasn't hitting the ball well. But it was one of those days where even if you don't feel well on the court you have to be tough and believe that you can win.”
As Djokovic increased his level of play and Wawrinka started making more mistakes, the second set turned into a battle. In the set, Djokovic improved his second serve win percentage to 78 percent from 11 percent in the opening set. Wawrinka had 19 unforced errors (with 21 winners) to just six in the opener.
Wawrinka felt good about his play coming into the match, having upset defending champion Andy Murray and No. 5 Tomas Berdych in his previous two matches, and knew he was the better player for much of the match Saturday.
“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. But he's not No. 1 for nothing. He was staying with me all match, and at the end he pushed me far back. I just was a little bit disappointed with my physical [performance] today because I was struggling a lot, but in general I was really happy with the way I start the match and the way I start to play against him.”
The battle continued into the third and Djokovic was the one to crack first. At 4-3, he hit a forehand that hit the tape and bounced back onto his side of the court, losing his serve at love and giving Wawrinka a chance to serve for the set. Wawrinka continued to display impressive calmness and poise, winning a 35-shot rally in the next game when Djokovic sliced a backhand into the net moving in, then the Swiss closed out the set when Djokovic netted a return.
In the fourth, Djokovic had Wawrinka on the run and broke for the first time since the second set for a 2-0 lead when Wawrinka double faulted. The errors began to pile up more for Wawrinka, as Djokovic put him on the defensive.
Wawrinka slipped as Djokovic held for 4-1 and left the court with the trainer for a right thigh strain. After returning, he looked a little tight at times but kept going, although it was a struggle physically. But he was unable to pressure Djokovic’s serve as the Serb never faced a break point in the fourth as Wawrinka began to miss his great one-handed backhand wide down the line a little more.
The two saved some of their best for the fifth. At 1-all, with Wawrinka serving, the two men stretched each other around the court, produced a variety spectacular shots and some of the best points of the match in a game that lasted 21 minutes, had 12 deuces and had five break point chances for Djokovic, who was denied each time. Wawrinka did a great job mixing up his serves and spinning the ball high to Djokovic’s backhand, finally holding for 2-1 when Djokovic netted a forehand on a return.
Wawrinka's next service game turned into a struggle early, as he had to fight off two more break point chances but Djokovic gained a third when Wawrinka hit a low volley into the net. Djokovic converted on just his fourth break in 19 chances in the match when a backhand from the Swiss sailed long, giving Djokovic a 3-2 lead. The two men each held from there, and Djokovic served it out, closing out the instant classic with an ace.
“I managed to find my way through, to adjust, and to win,” Djokovic said. “That's what counts. I'm really happy that I won in five sets again coming back from two sets to one down. Playing four [US Open] finals now in a row and five in total, it's great."
WHAT IT MEANS: In his first Grand Slam semifinal, Wawrinka acquitted himself brilliantly, taking the world's No. 1 man the distance before losing. At this event, the Swiss took out the No. 5 seed Tomas Berdych and defending US Open champion Andy Murray in back-to-back matches, suggesting he could be a factor at the majors going forward. Djokovic, meanwhile, is on to his fourth consecutive US Open final, and his fifth career final in Flushing. He will face either No. 2 Rafael Nadal for a third time in New York's ultimate match – Nadal won in 2010, Djokovic in 2011 – or eighth-seeded Frenchman Richard Gasquet.
THE QUESTION: Can the men's top seed come out on top on Monday?