WIMBLEDON, England -- Having ensured his first trip to a Wimbledon final and first turn at No. 1 in the rankings with a thrill-a-minute victory, Novak Djokovic dropped to his back at the baseline, limbs spread wide, chest heaving.
Moments later, he knelt and kissed the Centre Court grass, while his entourage bounced giddily in unison, huddling in a tight circle up in Djokovic’s guest box.
Clearly, it meant so much to all of them that Djokovic beat 12th-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-7 (9), 6-3 on Friday in an entertaining and engaging semifinal filled with diving volleys and showmanship. What would mean even more: If Djokovic, who is 47-1 in 2011, can beat defending champion Rafael Nadal for the title Sunday at the All England Club.
As a kid in war-torn Serbia, Djokovic recalled, “I was always trying to visualize myself on Sunday, the last Sunday of Wimbledon. Being in the Wimbledon final -- it’s ‘the thing’ for me.”
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The top-seeded Nadal extended his winning streak at the grass-court Grand Slam tournament to 20 matches by ending the latest so-close-yet-so-far bid by a British man at Wimbledon, eliminating No. 4 Andy Murray 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4. It’s the third consecutive year Murray has lost in the semifinals.
The last British man to win Wimbledon was Fred Perry in 1936, and the last to even reach the final was Bunny Austin in 1938; since then, the host country’s men are a combined 0-11 in semifinals.
“I feel sad for Andy,” said Nadal, who showed no signs of being hampered by the aching left heel that he’s numbing with painkilling injections as he seeks a third Wimbledon championship and 11th Grand Slam trophy overall.
No matter Sunday’s result, the Spaniard will be overtaken in the ATP rankings Monday by two-time Australian Open champion Djokovic, who’ll rise from No. 2.
It will be the first time since February 2004 that a man other than Roger Federer or Nadal has been No. 1.
“Both of them are incredibly consistent with their success and so dominant the last couple years. They don’t give you a lot of chances to become No. 1,” said the 24-year-old Djokovic, beaten in last year’s U.S. Open final by Nadal. “So I guess you need to lose only one match in seven months to get there. If you can do that, then well done.”
Yes, Djokovic deserves to hear a “Well done!” or two for his surge, which he says stems in part from the confidence and pride he gained while leading Serbia to its first Davis Cup title in December. His two wins against France during the final series at Belgrade started a 43-match streak that ended with a semifinal loss to Federer at the French Open a month ago.
Otherwise, Djokovic has been perfect. He won the first seven tournaments he entered this year -- including the Australian Open in January -- and beat Nadal in four finals.
“His total game is really complete,” Nadal said. “Good serve, very good movements. ... His eyes are very fast, and he can go inside the court very easy playing very difficult shots.”
The degree of difficulty was extremely high in Friday’s first semifinal, when Djokovic and Tsonga put on quite a display.
The highlight-reel points were numerous, starting in the sixth game, when Tsonga dove to his right for a forehand volley that Djokovic stretched to volley back. Somehow, Tsonga sprang up in time to knock home a volley winner, drawing a smile and applause from Djokovic. Tsonga walked toward the Royal Box -- where past Wimbledon champions Bjorn Borg and Goran Ivanisevic were among the guests -- and raised his arms overhead, basking in the raucous applause.
At 1-1 in the third set, both players wound up on the turf, with Tsonga diving to his left for a backhand volley, Djokovic sprawling as he stretched for a shot, and Tsonga then launching himself back to his right for another tumble, only to see his last shot land long.
Four games later, they were at it again, with both men ending up face-down on the grass.
“This is the only surface you can really dive,” Tsonga observed, “because on the others, if you dive, you go directly to the hospital.”
In the end, the outcome hinged on Djokovic’s steadiness -- he made only 13 unforced errors, 16 fewer than Tsonga -- and a remarkable ability to extend points, often sliding as if there were clay underfoot, his legs nearly doing the splits.
“I can beat everybody today, but not Djokovic,” said Tsonga, who upset six-time champion Federer in the quarterfinals, “because he just played unbelievable. He was everywhere.”
On Wednesday, Tsonga became the first man to overcome a two-set deficit against Federer in a Grand Slam match, and he dug himself that same hole against Djokovic. But when Tsonga saved two match points -- with an overhead winner, then a 123 mph ace -- en route to winning the third-set tiebreaker, suddenly this match no longer seemed so lopsided.
“I tried to talk to myself on the changeover between sets,” Djokovic would say later, “and tried to focus and be calm and hold my emotions, not allow him to come back.”
Djokovic is quite an excitable character, one who gained attention a few years back with his spot-on impersonations of top tennis players -- YouTube is filled with clips of him lampooning Nadal and others -- and whose temper occasionally flares, such as when he mangled a racket by whacking it on the ground three times during a match last week.
He also used to run into problems in the latter stages of majors, either because of a dip in play or quitting because of injuries or allergy problems, and was 0-2 in Wimbledon semifinals before Friday.
But against Tsonga, he collected himself at the start of the fourth set, taking the first eight points and a 2-0 lead with a service hold, then break.
Soon enough, Djokovic was closing out the victory with a 118 mph service winner -- the serve is the part of Djokovic’s game that’s improved the most this year -- then reveling in the moment.
“When I finished the match, I didn’t know how to show my emotions. I was really happy. This is one of those moments where you can’t describe it with the words,” Djokovic said. “You remember all your career, all your childhood, everything you worked for.”
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