Wimbledon 2013: Novak Djokovic is pushed to limit but shows why he's the best
Big questions asked... and world's No.1 answered them
Novak Djokovic, the top seed, will face Andy Murray in only his second Wimbledon final tomorrow after defeating Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro in a match of such quality and excitement that an admiring Boris Becker called it "a live highlights show."
The fitness levels of both men were tested to the full as well, and it was Djokovic's that held firmest.
Despite being a strong favourite, he got as good as he gave in five compelling sets, losing the second and only taking the third after Del Potro made a dreadful error with the whole court at his mercy.
The fourth went to a tie-break too in which the Argentine saved two match points and still won it; this epic had become the longest match of his career at four hours and 43 minutes, as well as the longest-ever Wimbledon semi-final before Djokovic finally came through 7-5, 4-6, 7-6, 6-7, 6-3.
Del Potro showed no nerves in his first Grand Slam semi-final since he won the US Open in 2009, conjuring up wonderful shots, some of them surprisingly deft, others simply thunderous. With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal out of the official ATP top three when the next rankings are published on Monday, he would seem to have every chance of joining David Ferrer in breaking into the elite group of players – if he can stay fit.
After winning the battle of wounded knee against Ferrer in the quarter-final there seemed to be few injury problems here, although he did call for the doctor and twice appeared to take some more "magic pills."
"It was one of the best matches I've ever been part of," said Djokovic. "It was so close. I'm just privileged to be a winner and proud to go through. He's a Grand Slam champion and every time he's in a tough situation, he comes up with some incredible shots."
It had initially looked as if a rally would be as rare as a rain cloud on Wimbledon's warmest day to date; one that briefly prompted Djokovic to put a cap on.
When sustained exchanges did develop, Del Potro unexpectedly won more of the longer ones.
For all the ferocity of the shots and importance of the occasion – each man averaging 75mph on ground strokes and reaching up to 130mph on serve – it was a splendidly good-tempered contest throughout.
There was even time for laughter early on when Del Potro (pictured) optimistically asked his opponent as well as the umpire if a serve should really have been called out; an unsuccessful shot between his legs may have been out of place on such an occasion but any propensity to ham it up was welcome, so tense and intense was the play otherwise.
At the height of the battle Djokovic could not help but smile as his opponent came up with an outrageous swiped winner that left the No.1 seed sprawling full length and parting company with his racquet; later there was a jocular exchange by the chair after the umpire James Keothavong – brother of British female player Anne – had overruled a Del Potro winner.
Even at match point down in the fourth set the Argentine conjured a comic moment by waving Djokovic's lob on its way beyond the baseline.
The first set looked for all the world as if it was heading for a tie-break, so dominant were both men on serve.
The first four games took only 11 minutes, with a mere two points against the serve.
Then at 5-6, Djokovic produced the most delicate of chips, and his opponent went long twice to concede the set.
The key games in the next set were the sixth and seventh. First Djokovic frittered away four break points; next Del Potro bested him with a sprint to the net – nothing wrong with the knee there – and delicately angled a forehand, then forced him to net for a break; something the Serb has rarely suffered this fortnight.
Another successful sprint to the net gave Del Potro three set points, the first of which he accepted with a service winner to level the match.
After some uneventful sparring early in the third set, Djokovic received warnings when he was taken to deuce and then 15-40 on service games.
He heeded them and seemed to have produced the same trick as in the first set by earning three set points on Del Potro's serve, only to lose five points in a row and go to a tie-break.
At last Del Potro faltered. With Djokovic's slides across court apparently immune from the accidents that have befallen others, one suddenly left him on the floor and without a racket, yet Del Potro, with the whole court gaping, netted an overhead.
That was the first mini-break, another followed and Djokovic ruthlessly finished the breaker 7-2.
Looking weary in the fourth, Del Potro was broken in the seventh game, yet revived to break back immediately with a cracking backhand down the line.
In the tie-break he was twice a mini-break down and saved two match points before forcing Djokovoic to concede by netting a superb return.
In the fifth set Djokovic broke to lead 5-3, went 0-30 and 30-40 down, but won through with a deep backhand.
Pleased as the Centre Court were to see Andy Murray at last, it was the sort of match no one really wanted to end.