It took five hours and 15 minutes over two days for Novak Djokovic to dispatch Rafael Nadal to book his place in the Wimbledon final against Kevin Anderson.
The Serbian former world number one will face Kevin Anderson in Sunday’s final after an absorbing 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (11/9), 3-6, 10-8 victory which took five-and-a-quarter hours.
Djokovic, whose last grand slam final appearance came at the 2016 US Open, said: “I’m just overwhelmed. This kind of match you live for, you work for.”
The match was watched by a crowd that included the Duchess of Cambridge and Duchess of Sussex, who had front-row seats in the Royal Box.
“It really could have gone either way,” Djokovic said. “It was very clear that very few things separated the two players and until the last shot I didn’t know if I was going to win. I believed it but I knew that he was very, very close and he had some chances.”
It was the second longest semi-final in wimbledon history with the longest, of course, having taken place 24 hours earlier.
The 52nd meeting between these two great rivals was delayed by the six hours and 36 minutes it took Anderson and John Isner to play their match, with Djokovic taking a two-sets-to-one lead before play was suspended just after 23:00 on Friday.
Nadal will regret his missed opportunity the night before, when he was in the ascendancy but passed up two set points. But while Anderson and Isner’s titanic tussle was more an exercise in totting up aces, this was a cast-iron classic.
The Centre Court roof remained closed, and the players carried on where they left off, raising the level of tennis seen at the championships so far by several notches.
The opening game alone, on Nadal’s serve, was 15 minutes of blistering groundstrokes and stunning winners, the Spaniard fending off two break points amid six deuces to eventually hold.
Yet when Djokovic’s serve was placed under scrutiny it promptly caved in, Nadal breaking to 15.
Nadal gifted a break back with a suddenly sloppy service game but when he struck again for 5-3 Djokovic’s frustration boiled over and he began hammering the sole of his shoe with his racket.
Djokovic forced three break points but Nadal hauled himself level and clinched the set with an ace – called out but correctly challenged – to take the match into a decider.
South African Anderson, presumably watching somewhere with his feet up, will have no doubt been pleased.
Nadal faced a break point at 4-3 behind but roared away from trouble with a powerful first serve followed by two vicious, whipped forehand winners.
Djokovic was under the cosh in the next but two booming serves saved two break points and suddenly Nadal found himself at 0-30 as he served to stay in the match.
Once again his first serve was his saviour and the match started to enter prime Anderson-Isner territory.
At 7-7, Djokovic double-faulted for 15-40 but again got out of that hole before a simply sensational forehand winner saved another break point.
The atmosphere, in sharp contrast to Friday’s slug-fest, was electric. Djokovic converted his game point and urged the crowd to its feet, Nadal converted a smash and raised his arms aloft.
Nadal was flagging, though, and it told in the 18th game of a 91-minute final set. Djokovic raced to 40-0 and when his rival’s tired forehand floated long, the 12th seed raised his arms again.
Djokovic said on BBC One: “It was a late night, early morning but at the end of the day I’m so glad to overcome this challenge.”
Of the task against Anderson, Djokovic said: “Hopefully we can first of all play, both of us get out on court. It’s been a roller coaster ride for him, the last couple of rounds, but he’s had a day off which means a lot. I wish I could have had one.
“But I’m in the final of Wimbledon and it’s an incredible achievement for me after what I’ve been through. I’m trying to digest that first, enjoy it, and we’ll think about the next one.”
Nadal said: “It has been a great match – I think a fantastic level of tennis for both of us. I was not a spectator, but I think it was a great show for the fans.
“I’ve nothing to complain about. I think I played a great match. I have not much more inside me. I gave it my best, and that’s it. It’s fair to say that it was a great match and he beat me. Well done for him. That’s all. That’s sport.”