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LONDON — For 368 points, for five sets, for a record 4 hours, 43 minutes — most quite marvelous, all with a berth in the Wimbledon final at stake — Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro put on a memorable show.
Their baseline exchanges were lengthy and intense, accompanied by loud grunts of exertion and exhaustion, punctuated by the thud of racket string against tennis ball.
In the end, as he almost always does lately, Djokovic displayed the stamina and fortitude to win a long-as-can-be match, edging del Potro 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (6), 6-3 Friday to close in on a second Wimbledon championship and seventh Grand Slam title overall.
"Unbelievable to watch," said del Potro.
"Draining," said Djokovic, who has won 10 of his last 12 five-setters. "One of the most exciting matches I've ever played in my life."
Folks around here felt just as euphoric about Friday's second semifinal, even if it was far less competitive or compelling. Britain has waited 77 years for one of its own to claim the men's trophy at Wimbledon, and for the second consecutive year, Andy Murray is one victory away. He came back from a set down, then a break down in the third, and got past 24th-seeded Jerzy Janowicz of Poland 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 in a match that concluded with Centre Court's retractable roof shut.
"I was very relieved after the semis last year, whereas this year ... I was a bit happier," said Murray, who lost to seven-time champion Roger Federer in the 2012 final. "I'll be probably in a better place mentally. I would hope so, just because I've been there before."
On Sunday, the top-ranked Djokovic faces No. 2 Murray, the third time in the past four Grand Slam tournaments they will meet in the final. The exception was last month's French Open, which Murray skipped because of a bad back.
Last September, Murray defeated Djokovic in five sets at the U.S. Open to earn the first major title anywhere for a British man since Fred Perry at that tournament in 1936 — months after Perry's historic win at Wimbledon. In January, Djokovic beat Murray at the Australian Open. Now they'll settle things at the All England Club.
On Friday, with the temperature in the 70s and the court bathed in sunlight, Djokovic and del Potro produced a contest worthy of two major champions — the longest semifinal, by time, in Wimbledon history. Theirs also was the first Wimbledon semifinal in the 45-year Open era between two men who hadn't dropped a set in the tournament.
A harbinger of things to come, the first set was as tight as could be for 11½ games and 52 minutes, packed with thunderous strokes by both men — the crowd gasped loudly at some of the hardest — and Djokovic's trademark scrambling, sliding defense. His legs stretched so far, he often did the splits; sometimes, he slipped and fell.
Djokovic was ever-so-slightly better, surprisingly hitting more aces, 22-4. Repeatedly, Djokovic managed to return del Potro's 130 mph serves.
Djokovic got the last break he would need when del Potro sailed a running forehand long to make it 5-3. Del Potro shielded his eyes with his left palm, and Djokovic bent over, chest heaving, knowing he was one game away. Wouldn't be easy, though. Nothing was on this day.
Del Potro pounded a forehand for a break point, and a chance to extend the match, but Djokovic answered with a winner of his own. A 123 mph service winner set up Djokovic's third match point, and this time he made it count, delivering a backhand winner down the line.
"I know that I have been pushed to the limit today," Djokovic said. "This is where your physical strength, but also mental ability to stay tough, can decide the winner."
Including his London Olympic gold medal, Murray has won 17 grass-court matches in a row, and 23 of 24. He hung in there when Janowicz was smacking 140 mph serves and taking a 4-1 lead in the third set.
At 4-2, 30-all, though, Murray hit a forehand that clipped the top of the net and trickled over, setting up a break point. Janowicz then tried a drop shot, and Murray made a long run to reach the ball for a cross-court forehand winner. That was part of a five-game run that gave Murray the third set and momentum — and pumped up the partisan fans.
"Everything basically collapsed after this one point," explained Janowicz, the first Polish man in a Slam semifinal.
Past 8:30 p.m. at that point, the tournament decided to close the roof and turn on the artificial lights, a half-hour break Murray argued against. When play resumed, though, he was far better.
Now Murray has time to think about facing Djokovic and the possibility of a Wimbledon championship.
"I might wake up on Sunday and be unbelievably nervous, more nervous than I ever have been before," Murray said. "But I wouldn't expect to be."
Sneezes excluded, Lisicki thrilled to be in final match
LONDON — Sabine Lisicki is allergic to Wimbledon, sort of.
Not the town in southwest London, and not the All England Club. She does have hay fever, making her hypersensitive to the very grass for which the tournament is so famous.
That affliction, of course, won't stop her from playing in the Wimbledon final today, when either she or Marion Bartoli will end up with a first Grand Slam title.
"I learned how to cope with that," Lisicki said Friday. "In the beginning, the first time I was here, which was, what, five years ago, I really was struggling with the allergies. But by now I know what to do, what to take, to calm those allergies down. I'm on medication."
She also knows what to do on the tennis court when she steps onto Centre Court.
On Thursday, the 23rd-seeded German rallied from a 3-0 deficit in the third set to beat Agnieszka Radwanska and reach her first major final. She did the same thing in the fourth round, when she eliminated defending champion Serena Williams.
"I had a lot of challenges on my way to the finals with players being aggressive, players who were very solid, moving very well," Lisicki said. "So it will be another challenge."
Today’s match will be only the second time in the 45-year Open era that two women who have never won a Grand Slam trophy will play for the championship at the All England Club. It's difficult to say who has the edge.
Bartoli has been in this position before, reaching the 2007 Wimbledon final before losing to Venus Williams. She hasn't lost a set so far this year, winning all six of her matches in straight sets. Lisicki is 3-1 against Bartoli, including a win at Wimbledon two years ago when the 23-year-old German reached the semifinals.
"A final of a Grand Slam is always a matter of details. Maybe a point here, a point there will make the difference," said Bartoli, now 28 and much more experienced than the last time she made it this far. "Maybe someone who is a bit more gutsy than the other player, someone who is having a better day than the others.
"Sabine is definitely serving faster than me, especially on the first serve," Bartoli added. "I might take the ball a bit earlier. But obviously we both have the same thing, playing fairly flat and from the baseline and trying to hit some winners."
Lisicki's power game is something to note. Her hard serves have earned her the nickname "Boom Boom Bine," a moniker she shares with another German tennis great, three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker.
On Friday, "Boom Boom Bine" took a moment to seek out some advice from "Boom Boom Becker."
"I asked him a couple of questions, how it was for him," Lisicki said. "He won the first final he was in, so that's pretty good."
Lisicki has also been receiving well-wishes from Steffi Graf, the last German woman to win the Wimbledon title in 1996. Bartoli has Amelie Mauresmo on her side, a 2006 Wimbledon champion who now coaches France's Davis Cup team.
After years of disagreements and disputes with the French tennis federation, Mauresmo has brought Bartoli back into the national team fold. And she has been watching Bartoli during her run to the final, even extending her stay at Wimbledon as Bartoli extended hers.
"She's helping me with the way I need to deal with my stress and with my energy out of the court. Sometimes I was losing too [much] energy being too focused for too long, especially a lot of times before the matches," Bartoli said. "I felt when I was going on court, I was already tired from it."
Part of her relaxation routine — and Lisicki's, too — entails music. Both said they listen to certain tunes when they are gearing up for a match.
"Bob Sinclar, Summer Moonlight. The same track over and over," Bartoli said.
"When I walk on court, probably Play Hard," Lisicki said, referring to the David Guetta song.
Soon enough, the music in their ears will give way to the thwack of the racket and the sound of the crowd. That's when one of the two will start on the path to being a Wimbledon champion.
"I just want to be better than my opponent," Lisicki said. "That's all I'm thinking about."