New York: Locked in a taut, thrill-a-minute second set, Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro headed to a tiebreaker and promptly produced a 20-stroke masterpiece of a point befitting a pair of past US Open champions.
More than a dozen shots in, defending champion Djokovic tossed up a lob. Del Potro, the 2009 champion, sprinted with his back to the court, got to the ball and lofted a lob the other way. Djokovic slammed an overhead. Del Potro somehow kept the ball in play. Djokovic laced a drop shot. Again, del Potro got there, attempting another lob. It landed long.
A point from a two-set lead, Djokovic threw his head back, roared "Come on!" and pumped his arms. Del Potro leaned his elbows atop the net, hunched over and rested his head on his arms.
Close and compelling as their quarter-final was, it might as well have been over. Djokovic's down-the-line backhand winner moments later ended the tie-breaker, gave him a commanding lead, and sent him on the way to a 6-2, 7-6 (3), 6-4 victory on Thursday night that put him in his 10th consecutive Grand Slam semi-final.
"We played some incredible rallies and incredible points," Djokovic said. "It's always entertaining, always so much fun, playing in these night sessions."
The second-seeded Serb will face fourth-seeded David Ferrer of Spain on Saturday, with a spot in Sunday's final at stake. Ferrer advanced to his fourth career major semi-final by using his high-energy brand of leg-churning, ball-chasing tennis to outlast eighth-seeded Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia 6-3, 6-7 (5), 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4) in 4 hours and 31 minutes.
Under the lights at night in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the showcase matchup of Djokovic's squeaky-sneaker defence, reflex returns and line-catching groundstrokes against the seventh-seeded del Potro's big-as-can-be forehands topping 100 mph lasted a few minutes past three hours. But it was tremendously good every step of the way, and the second set alone was 84 minutes long — 11 minutes more than Djokovic's entire first-round match last week.
These are the only two men who have managed to beat Roger Federer, owner of a record 17 major trophies, and Rafael Nadal, owner of 11, in the course of a single Grand Slam tournament. Djokovic and del Potro each did it while on the way to the championship at Flushing Meadows.
In the three years since del Potro's triumph, though, he hasn't reached another major final. He was sidelined for most of the 2010 season — and missed out on a chance to defend his US Open title — because of a right wrist injury that required surgery. And he's had problems with his left wrist recently, limiting the effectiveness of his two-fisted backhand.
Still, he beat Djokovic for the bronze medal at the London Olympics last month and gave the guy all he could handle throughout the second set. In what would turn out to be the match's final game, del Potro — who ended Andy Roddick's career by beating him on Wednesday — at least got a chance to briefly celebrate on what has become Djokovic's territory, smacking a brilliant backhand winner and hopping on a court-side advertising wall while raising his arms overhead.
Fans leaped out of their seats. Even Djokovic had to acknowledge the shot, using his racquet to applaud.
But otherwise, this was Djokovic's night to shine. He is into the US Open semi-finals for the sixth year in a row, and the streak of 10 he has at all major tournaments — dating to Wimbledon in 2010 — ties Rod Laver and Ivan Lendl for the second-longest, behind Federer's record of 23.
Djokovic is bidding to raise his Grand Slam trophy collection to six, and on Thursday he displayed all of the skills that have carried him to the top. He dulled del Potro's intimidating serves, accumulating 13 break points and converting four. He served well enough to face only three break points himself, saving all but one. And he grabbed control of lengthy baseline back-and-forths.
What will be remembered most, though, is that marvellous second set, one which del Potro led 5-3, and served for at 5-4 but got broken. One that included a game of more than 15 minutes, when del Potro served while suddenly trailing 6-5 and needed to save three set points. He held there, sending it to the tie-breaker. Djokovic emerged there, though. When the set ended, del Potro grabbed a black gym bag and headed to the locker to change his sweat-soaked clothes.
The only remaining question about the outcome arose early in the third set, when Djokovic winced and clutched at his left side after lunging for a backhand. He flexed his back a bit, and stomped his feet, and played well enough to avoid fretting about any sort of comeback.