Novak Djokovic tops Rafael Nadal in another Wimbledon marathon semifinal

AP
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Is Novak Djokovic back? Certainly looked like it Friday night and Saturday afternoon at Wimbledon.

The 12-time Grand Slam champion outlasted top-ranked Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9), 3-6, 10-8 to reach Sunday’s final at the All England Club, where the Serb plays South African Kevin Anderson.

“It’s hard to pick the words,” said Djokovic, the 12th seed who reached his first Grand Slam final since the 2016 U.S. Open. “I mean, I’m just going through things that flash back the last 15 months and everything I’ve been through to get here, to get to the final and to win against the best player in the world. … I’m just overwhelmed.

“These kind of matches you live for, you work for.”

Djokovic and Nadal, two men with a combined 29 Grand Slam singles titles, played the first three sets Friday — after Anderson and John Isner‘s 6-hour, 36-minute epic — before Wimbledon’s 11 p.m. curfew suspended the match overnight.

The Centre Court roof remained closed for Saturday’s resumption because at least one of the players (Djokovic, presumably) preferred it.

They were on court for 5 hours, 14 minutes total, which would have been the longest Wimbledon semifinal in history before Friday.

“Very special,” said Djokovic, who improved to 27-25 against Nadal in the most prolific men’s rivalry in the 50-year Open Era. “It really could have gone either way, I think. … It was very clear that very few things separated the two players. Basically, until the last shot I didn’t know that I was going to win.”

Djokovic made his first Grand Slam final since the end of a two-year stretch where the Serb was the world’s top player. He once held all four Grand Slam titles, something neither Roger Federer nor Nadal has done.

Djokovic’s struggles the last two years accompanied off-court life changes.

He cited “private issues” in summer 2016, split from coach Boris Becker that fall, was coached by Andre Agassi for less than a year, missed the 2017 U.S. Open for an elbow injury, then underwent surgery to fix it in January.

He has won two tournaments in the last two years and none in the last 12 months, his longest drought since his first of 68 ATP titles at age 19 in 2006.

But on Friday and Saturday, Djokovic packaged mental strength, physical endurance, shot-making talent and big-stage guts like we haven’t seen in two years.

Now Djokovic, the lowest-ranked man in a Wimbledon final since Mark Philippoussis in 2003, is favored against the eighth seed Anderson to win his fourth Wimbledon. Djokovic has won their last five matches, including at Wimbledon in 2015.

Anderson, the oldest first-time Wimbledon finalist in the 50-year Open Era, eyes his first Grand Slam title after playing a combined 10 hours, 50 minutes between the quarterfinals (upsetting Roger Federer 13-11 in the fifth) and semifinals.

“Hopefully we can first of all play, both of us,” Djokovic said in exhaustion. “It’s been a roller-coaster ride for him in the last couple of rounds, but he had a day off, which means a lot. I wish I could have one. … It’s an incredible achievement for me after what I’ve been through. I’m trying to digest that.”

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