NEW YORK — The game took 21 minutes. It lasted 30 points.
Novak Djokovic squandered five break points and lost that instant classic of a game but made Stanislas Wawrinka pay an awfully heavy price.
After dropping the epic third game of the final set Saturday, Djokovic broke the next time Wawrinka served, then didn’t falter once he had the lead. The top-seeded Serb withstood a 4-hour, 9-minute onslaught of Wawrinka’s massive groundstrokes to pull out a 2-6, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory and advance to his fourth straight final at the U.S. Open.
“Well, I was thinking — I guess everybody was thinking — ‘Whoever wins this game is going to win the match,’” Djokovic said. “After he won the game, I thought to myself, ‘OK, I guess I have to fight against those odds.’”
He did, to improve to 20-7 in five-set matches, and now the 2011 champion will go for his second U.S. Open title Monday against No. 2 Rafael Nadal, who had a much easier time in a 6-4, 7-6 (1), 6-2 victory over eighth-seeded Richard Gasquet.
It will be the third Nadal-Djokovic final at Flushing Meadows in the last four years, the only break coming last year when Nadal was out with a knee injury. They split the first two meetings.
Nadal won easily despite dropping his first service game of the tournament. He had extended his streak to 73 when Gasquet broke him in the fourth game of the second set. Both men held until a second-set tiebreaker, which Nadal won 7-1 to end what little drama existed in the afternoon’s second match.
Fans certainly got their money’s worth in the first one.
“I managed to find my way through, to adjust, and to win,” Djokovic said. “That’s what counts.”
His victory will be remembered mostly for a game he lost — the third game of the final set, a back-and-forth roller coaster ride in which Djokovic had five opportunities to break for a 2-1 lead and lost them all.
Ninth-seeded Wawrinka had eight game points. Before the last, he gestured to the crowd to pump up the volume. Sensing the opportunity, Djokovic hammed it up, as well. Wawrinka followed that well-deserved break in the action with a 123-mph service winner up the middle.
Wawrinka’s 57 winners — 26 from the forehand side — weren’t enough to overcome Djokovic’s fast-footed defense.
Playing in his first Grand Slam semifinal, Wawrinka opened with about as flawless a first set as possible. He broke Djokovic twice over the first 18 minutes, and when he completed the second break with a sizzling crosscourt forehand winner — one of seven in that set — Djokovic simply glanced across with a look that landed somewhere between bemused and amazed.
Yes, Wawrinka was going to be there all day, and by the time the fifth set rolled around, the scene near his changeover chair showed it. It looked like his living room, strewn with towels, shirts, a warmup jacket and an assortment of rackets, including the mangled remains of one stick he smashed in the fourth set, which drew him a point penalty.
It was that kind of day; the players each won 165 points. And Game 3 was that sort of game.
It started innocently enough, with an ace and a forced error by Djokovic that gave Wawrinka a quick 30-love lead.
But when Djokovic scrambled to get to a deftly struck drop shot, then Wawrinka sprayed the reply wide, things started setting up for something special. Djokovic followed that hustle play with an acutely angled backhand for a winner to make it 30-30. Wawrinka hit a forehand winner to make it 40-30, and for the next 15 minutes, each man tried in vain to close out the game.
The final 23 points included six winners, two double-faults and at least one small rest break for Wawrinka after a cruelly efficient dink-lob-overhead combination of Djokovic’s chased Wawrinka off the court and onto the ledge near the front row.
“That game, I was already quite tired, quite dead physically,” Wawrinka said. “Just trying to stay with him, to fight, to give everything I had in my body. But it was tough.”