NEW YORK — A game that will be talked about for years required 198 strokes, 30 points and 21 minutes to decide. Entire sets have involved less.
It might be easy to conclude that Novak Djokovic won his tense, topsy-turvy U.S. Open semifinal against Stanislas Wawrinka despite dropping that epic third game of the fifth set. The truth is that the 2011 Open champion emerged with a 2-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 victory in 4 hours, 9 minutes Saturday at least in part because of the one that got away.
"Even though I lost that game, I felt like, 'Okay, he's getting a little bit more tired and maybe this is my chance to step in,' " Djokovic said. "And that's what I (did)."
Djokovic, the top seed, plays No. 2 Rafael Nadal in Monday's final. It's their 37th match against each other, their sixth Grand Slam final and their third meeting for the U.S. Open championship since 2010. Nadal was a 6-4, 7-6 (7-1), 6-2 winner over No. 8 Richard Gasquet in the second semifinal, which was far less competitive than the first.
The tennis and theatrics at 1-all in the last set alone of Djokovic-Wawrinka were so compelling, the game was interrupted twice by standing ovations.
By then, Wawrinka's strained right thigh had been taped after a medical timeout in the fourth set (he was seized by cramps during his postmatch news conference). Still, Wawrinka erased five break points and navigated 12 deuces until delivering a 123 mph service winner to hold for a 2-1 edge. He stepped gingerly to the sideline, plopped down in his chair and smiled.
Djokovic responded by taking the next three games, propelling himself to a fourth consecutive title match at Flushing Meadows and fifth since 2007.
"I was already quite tired," said Wawrinka, who won the same number of points in the match as Djokovic, 165. "I was already quite dead physically.
"At the end, he pushed me. Pushed me far, far, far."
Nothing that dramatic occurred when 12-time major champion Nadal played Gasquet, in his first major semifinal since 2007. The most newsworthy moment came at the 1-hour mark, when Nadal let a forehand drift long to get broken and make it 2-all in the second set. That allowed Gasquet to become the first player to break Nadal's serve in the tournament, ending a run of 73 holds.
Gasquet had five other break points, but Nadal saved each while stretching his hardcourt record in 2013 to 21-0.
"I don't know if it's a victory to win his serve," Gasquet. "I think it's better to win one set or more. … I did not (have) a bad match, but it was three sets (to) zero, so at the end, he was the best on the court."
A year after missing the U.S. Open because of a bad left knee, Nadal is looking as fit and as impressive as ever. His overall record for the year is 59-3, and Monday he goes for his 10th title and second major (he won the French Open after beating Djokovic in the semis).
"Very happy for everything the way that I am playing," Nadal said. "But what really makes me happy is to be competitive in every tournament that I am playing, and that's why I am very happy today, because in this season … I was very competitive in every tournament, and it makes me more happy have the chance to win every time."