An early clue that top seed Novak Djokovic was in for a whopping U.S. Open semifinal struggle against Stanislas Wawrinka Saturday came within the first five games of the match, with Wawrinka twice breaking Djokovic's serve.
Even before that, though, there were sufficient hints that Djokovic -- if he survived at all -- would need more than four hours and of skill and perseverance to secure a ticket to his fourth straight Open final tomorrow night.
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He did so, 2-6, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. But not until Wawrinka provided a grand tug-of-war the tennis world might have seen coming.
The last time they played each other, in the Australian Open's fourth round in January, Wawrinka wrestled with Djokovic for five hours before Djokovic survived a 12-10 fifth-set tiebreaker.
Plus Wawrinka, the 28-year-old Swiss who never before had been to a Grand Slam semifinal, just two days before made defending champion Andy Murray disappear in straight sets.
Saturday's robust duel more than held the attention of 25,390 in Arthur Ashe Stadium. By the fifth set, they rose for a standing ovation in the midst of a 21-minute, 30-point game that crystallized the riveting theater.
Serving at 1-1, Wawrinka fought Djokovic to deuce 12 times, worked through five Djokovic break points and seven game points. On full display was Djokovic's elastic retrieving, Wawrinka's one-handed backhand worthy of great envy, delicate drops shots and searing passes.
After the 28th point, with the crowd loudly voicing its appreciation by falling into sustained applause, Wawrinka stepped from the service line and lifted both arms to encourage yet more cheers. The fans obliged. So Djokovic, too, asked for additional love. And promptly got it.
"That's why you play tennis," Wawrinka said. "It's to play in front of people like today in the bigger stadium. And even if I lost today, I was still happy to hear all the cheering and hear all the crowd like it is. I hope they enjoy the match as much as I did."
Wawrinka's quick lead had Djokovic, the 2011 Open titlist and six-time major-tournament champion, temporarily on his heels and exasperated, eventually able to convert only 4 of 19 break points in the match.
"I wasn't managing to find my rhythm," Djokovic said. "That frustrated me. Wawrinka was a better player for the better part of the match, because he was aggressive. I just tried to hang on and fight and be mentally tough and believe all the way through I can actually win."
Djokovic was serving at 2-4, 15-30, in the fifth game of the second set, in serious danger of again being broken and allowing Wawrinka to serve out a 2-0 set lead.
Instead, Djokovic hit a crosscourt forehand that Wawrinka couldn't handle, struck two quick service winners and broke Wawrinka the following game. They were back to 4-4 and on their way to the critical second-set tiebreaker.
Wawrinka won the longest point of the tiebreaker, zinging a crosscourt forehand winner on the 27th shot. But Djokovic took five of the last seven points, the last a screaming forehand crosscourt return, before momentum swung back to Wawrinka in the third set.
"It's a strange feeling," Wawrinka said, "but for me I think I need to take the positive again of that loss. I think I was playing better than him. I was doing much more things than him.
"But he's not No. 1 for nothing. He was staying with me all the match, and at the end he pushed me, pushed me far, far, far back. I had to find everything I had in my body to stay with him."
Only once did Wawrinka let show the tension, one point after Djokovic had broken to take a 2-0 lead in the fourth, by slamming his racket on the court, then mercilessly breaking the offending weapon in two against his knee.
Quickly enough, the two resumed enduring so many switchback turns in the score that faith and doubt were able to coexist in both players. But a nagging leg injury that necessitated a medical timeout for Wawrinka added to his growing weariness.
And Djokovic's 19-7 record in previous five-setters might have been a clue to the ending.