NEW YORK — If the rest of the week goes the way Novak Djokovic hopes, he’ll play two more matches at Flushing Meadows and end up holding the U.S. Open trophy for the second straight year.
Hard to imagine he’ll play much better, or put on a more entertaining show, than he did Thursday night.
Djokovic made it to his 10th straight Grand Slam semifinal by beating No. 7 Juan Martin del Potro a 6-2, 7-6 (3), 6-4 in a 3-hour, 6-minute tennis masterpiece that featured Djokovic deftly turning defense into offense, sometimes in the span of a single shot, and del Potro often shaking his head, wondering what the heck he had to do to get a point off this guy.
A match worthy of two former U.S. Open champions, playing in the sport’s biggest stadium under the lights.
“I didn’t expect anything less,” Djokovic said.
The high point came late in the back-and-forth, 84-minute second set — 11 minutes longer than Djokovic’s entire first-round match — when del Potro forced a tiebreaker by saving three set points to win a game that extended to eight deuces and lasted 17 minutes.
Second-seeded Djokovic won the tiebreaker 7-3, but really it was the 20-shot point that made it 6-3 that finished it off.
Del Potro, the 2009 champion, hustled to the net to chase down a drop shot, then retreated when Djokovic lobbed that reply over his head. He returned a deep lob that gave him time to get into position to hit a solid backhand back. Djokovic answered that with a drop volley, which del Potro got to, but hit long.
Djokovic pumped both fists in the air and del Potro sagged his 6-foot-6 frame onto the net, resting his forearms there before taking a towel and draping it over his head for the long walk back to the baseline. Djokovic closed out the set with a running backhand winner from four feet behind the baseline — not the first or last time he rapidly turned from defender to aggressor on a night when he hit 43 winners, including 14 from the backhand side.
The crowd, as it had so many times over the thrilling end to that set, stood and roared.
“That was an incredible feeling for a player to see,” Djokovic said. “Then you get more excited and motivated to play even better. So, I mean, probably one of the better sets I have played in 2012, for sure. I mean, he’s a great opponent.”
Next up for Djokovic is a meeting Saturday with No. 4 David Ferrer, who advanced to his fourth career major semifinal in his typical, never-say-quit fashion. He outlasted eighth-seeded Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia 6-3, 6-7 (5), 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4) in 4 hours, 31 minutes.
“The match, it was very emotional,” Ferrer said. “My opponent, he deserve also to (have) won this match, no? In one tiebreak, it’s a lottery, and I (was) lucky in important moments.”
The other semifinal will pit No. 3 Andy Murray against No. 6 Tomas Berdych, each of whom won their quarterfinal matches Wednesday — Berdych by taking out Roger Federer. The men’s final is Sunday.
In the women’s semifinals today, No. 4 Serena Williams plays No. 10 Sara Errani and No. 1 Victoria Azarenka plays No. 3 Maria Sharapova.
When the Ferrer-Tipsarevic quarterfinal ended, it immediately became a candidate as one of the best matches of the tournament thus far. It quickly, however, had company once Djokovic and del Potro took the court. What little their match lacked in pure quantity it more than made up for with quality.
“It was much, much closer and tougher than really the score indicated,” Djokovic said. “I think whoever saw the match would understand.”
After losing the marathon second set, del Potro immediately asked for a timeout, grabbed his bag and headed to the locker room. Nobody would’ve blamed him for not coming back, given the fight he put up and the reward he got for it — nothing.
But he did return and after losing serve in the first game, still extended the set to 63 minutes and gave himself two chances at break points, neither of which he converted.
Quite simply, there was no beating Djokovic, who painted lines with his down-the-line backhand, got breaks on the net cord at least a half-dozen times, got two calls from the replay system that showed his shots landing in by the tiniest of margins.
“I wanted to destroy that machine,” del Potro said. “But what can you do?”
Three times, after some good break he’d gotten, Djokovic sent a meek wave of apology over to del Potro, who more than once found himself lifting his hands, gesturing to his players box, wondering what more there was to be done.
The second set, both men agreed, decided the match.
“I had the chance to win that set, but Nole played really well, basically, in the important moments,” del Potro said. “He deserved today, and he played much better than me for the rest of the match. He was too much for me.”
Djokovic is into the U.S. Open semifinals for the sixth year in a row, and the streak of 10 straight semifinals 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.
But Federer is gone from this tournament. Rafael Nadal didn’t play because of a knee injury. That leaves Djokovic as the only man among the final four who has hoisted a Grand Slam trophy. He’ll be going for his sixth.
Del Potro knows who he likes.
“I think he’s playing better and better every day and tournament,” del Potro said. “He is the favorite to win this tournament. I saw him playing at a very high level for the three hours in the match, and he has intensity to win all the matches in the tournament.”