WIMBLEDON, England — Having ensured his first trip to a Wimbledon final and first turn at No. 1 in the world rankings with a thrill-a-minute victory, Novak Djokovic dropped to his back at the baseline, limbs spread wide, chest heaving.
Moments later, he knelt and kissed the Centre Court grass, while his entourage bounced giddily in unison, huddling in a tight circle up in Djokovic's guest box.
Clearly, it meant so much to all of them that Djokovic beat 12th-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, 6-7 (11-9), 6-3 Friday in an entertaining and engaging semifinal filled with diving volleys and showmanship. What would mean even more: If Djokovic, who is 47-1 in 2011, can beat defending champion Rafael Nadal for the title Sunday at the All England Club.
As a kid in war-torn Serbia, Djokovic recalled, "I was always trying to visualize myself on Sunday, the last Sunday of Wimbledon. Being in the Wimbledon final — it's 'the thing' for me."
Top-seeded Nadal extended his winning streak at the grasscourt Grand Slam tournament to 20 matches by ending the latest so-close-yet-so-far bid by a British man at Wimbledon, eliminating No. 4 Andy Murray 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4. It's the third consecutive year Murray has lost in the semifinals.
Nadal shifted his game from scintillating to sublime in the second set and never downshifted. Murray's strategy was to play with abandon. He never lost his nerve, but his forehand abandoned him in the final three sets.
"He makes you play an extra ball all the time," Murray said. "And eventually today, like after the first set and a half, when I started making mistakes, he raised his game and started playing better and capitalized on it."
Nadal showed no signs of being hampered by the aching left heel that he's numbing with painkilling injections as he seeks a third Wimbledon championship and 11th Grand Slam overall.
No matter Sunday's result, the Spaniard will be overtaken in the ATP rankings Monday by two-time Australian Open champion Djokovic, 24, who'll rise from No. 2.
It will be the first time since February 2004 that a man other than Roger Federer or Nadal has been No. 1.
"Both of them are incredibly consistent with their success and so dominant the last couple years. They don't give you a lot of chances to become No. 1," said Djokovic, beaten in last year's U.S. Open final by Nadal. "So I guess you need to lose only one match in seven months to get there. If you can do that, then well done."
Yes, Djokovic deserves to hear a "Well done!" or two for his surge, which he says stems in part from confidence he gained while leading Serbia to its first Davis Cup title in December. His two wins against France during the final series at Belgrade started a 43-match streak that ended with a semifinal loss to Federer at the French Open a month ago.
Otherwise, Djokovic has been perfect. He won the first seven tournaments he entered this year — including the Australian Open in January — and beat Nadal in four finals.
"His total game is really complete," said Nadal, who is 16-11 against Djokovic, including 5-0 at Grand Slam tournaments. "Good serve, very good movements. … His eyes are very fast, and he can go inside the court very easy playing very difficult shots."