NEW YORK — For the 37th time, for the sixth time in a Grand Slam final and for the third time in a U.S. Open decider, Novak Djokovic will play Rafael Nadal in the title game of the season’s last major after the two top seeds won their semifinals on Saturday in contrasting fashion.
Top-seeded Djokovic advanced to his fourth straight U.S. Open final by overcoming the loss of a 21-minute game in the fifth set to defeat Stanislas Wawrinka 2-6, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
While the Serb, labored, Nadal swept past Richard Gasquet 6-4, 7-6 (1), 6-2.
Nadal extended his streak without losing a service game to 73 before Frenchman Gasquet broke him in the fourth game of the second set. Both players held through to the tiebreaker, which Nadal won easily.
The theatrics of the third game of the final set in Djokovic-Wawrinka was so compelling that the game was interrupted twice by standing ovations.
Wawrinka, with his strained right thigh taped after a medical timeout in the fourth set, erased five break points and navigated 12 deuces until finally delivering a service winner to hold for a 2-1 edge. He stepped gingerly to the sideline, plopped down in his chair and smiled.
That grin remained in place throughout the two-minute changeover. If the ninth-seeded Wawrinka was enjoying the moment, perhaps feeling a tad relieved, Djokovic was ever more determined. He 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.”
Djokovic had believed that marathon game would be decisive, even if it proved not.
“I was thinking — I guess everybody was thinking — ‘Whoever wins this game is going to win the match,'” the six-time major champion told the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium. “After he won the game, I thought to myself, ‘OK, I guess I have to fight against those odds.'”
Djokovic is nothing if not dogged, able to withstand even the most dire of circumstances. It’s why he managed to set aside match points and come back to beat Roger Federer in the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Open semifinals. It’s why he was able to beat Nadal in a 2012 Australian Open final that lasted nearly six hours. It’s why he was able to win the longest Wimbledon semifinal in history.
“At the end, he pushed me,” Wawrinka said. “Pushed me far, far, far.”
Nothing quite that dramatic occurred when 12-time major champion Nadal played Gasquet, who was in his first Grand Slam semifinal since 2007.
Nadal did drop serve once but saved five other break points as he stretched his hard-court record in 2013 to 21-0. A year after missing the U.S. Open because of a bad left knee, Nadal is looking as fit and as impressive as ever.
“I don’t know if it’s a victory to (break) his serve. I’m not sure about it. It’s better to win one set or more,” said Gasquet, now 0-11 against Nadal.
In the past, the U.S. Open was the only Grand Slam tournament to schedule the men’s semifinals Saturday and the final Sunday, instead of having a day of rest in between. This year, the tournament scrapped that plan and built in an extra 24 hours.
As it is, Djokovic said he “didn’t find it very fair” that he needed to play at noon Saturday after finishing his quarterfinal at about 11 p.m. Thursday. Nadal and Gasquet played their quarterfinals Wednesday.
“I didn’t find any logic in that, to be honest,” Djokovic said. “But, again, there are some other, I guess, influences that have more power than players, and this has to be changed.”
On Sunday, while Nadal and Djokovic rest and prepare, No. 1 Serena Williams will play No. 2 Victoria Azarenka for the women’s championship. It’s the first time both U.S. Open singles finals are 1-2 matchups since 1996.
Nadal is 21-15 against Djokovic, but said when they play, it “becomes a very difficult match for both of us.
Nadal said he’d rather face a less-formidable foe, because wanting to play someone as good as Djokovic would be “stupid.”
Djokovic, meanwhile, called trying to beat Nadal “the biggest challenge that you can have in our sport now.”
Wawrinka produced a performance that was similar to the net-rushing surprise he pulled off against defending champion Andy Murray in the quarterfinals. Wawrinka could sense jitters early from Djokovic, who acknowledged afterward he was nervous.
That seemed odd, because Djokovic was playing in his 14th consecutive Grand Slam semifinal, the second-longest streak in history, and 21st overall. Wawrinka — long in the shadow of Federer, his Swiss Olympic teammate and good friend — was in his first. And yet it was Djokovic who double-faulted four times as part of his 14 unforced errors in the first set, while getting broken three times.
It didn’t help matters that Wawrinka kept finding the mark with his booming serves, his effective forehand and his sweet, one-handed backhand, to the tune of 57 winners, 19 more than Djokovic.
“Today I had the feeling that when I was playing my best level, I was better than him,” said Wawrinka, who entered the day 2-12 against Djokovic. “But he’s not No. 1 for nothing. That’s why he won the match, because he always finds a solution.”
Slowly but surely Djokovic found ways to bother Wawrinka, in part by forcing more errors off his forehand wing, in part by serving better himself. Wawrinka began showing signs of mental and physical fatigue.
Wawrinka egged on fans to get louder and clap longer, soaking it all in — and getting a bit of a chance to catch his breath. Djokovic at first seemed annoyed, before he, too, waved for more noise.
Two games later, a sequence of errors by Wawrinka, capped by a weary backhand, let Djokovic break for a 3-2 lead.
“I managed to stay tough and play well when I needed to,” Djokovic said. “That’s something that definitely encourages me before the final.”