A ferocious fightback from Rafael Nadal wasn't enough for the Spaniard to fight off Novak Djokovic in a thrilling finish to Wimbledon's two day, five-set semi-final.
Nadal took the fourth set shortly after play resumed on Saturday night (AEST) and looked set to continue his stellar run at Wimbledon 2018. A collection of jaw-dropping rallies treated fans as two of the sports' greatest stars duked it out on the British grass.
Djokovic's path to victory was thrown a curveball as Nadal served his way back to 5-5 in the fifth, but a handful of unforced errors from the clay court king handed momentum back to the Serbian star to race through his service game and take the score to 6-5.
A particularly smooth drop shot at the net Djokovic left the Wimbledon crowd, featuring royals Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle, in awe.
By 7-6 in the fifth, both players had won exactly 175 points for the match.
Djokovic began to grow increasingly agitated as Nadal broke back to 7-7, screaming up towards his box before the Spaniard aced him for the game.
The match continued its fiery back-and-forth with Nadal escaping match point 16 games into the final set, bringing spectators to their feet.
A number of signature crosscourt forehand winners from Nadal looked to keep him from losing his first semi-final at the historic tournament, but the Djoker had the last laugh with the final break after the five hour mark.
The clash will go down in history as the second longest semi-final match in Wimbledon's history behind Kevin Anderson and John Isner's thrilling six hour, 36 minute meeting earlier in the week.
The final scorecard was 6-4 3-6 7-6 3-6 10-8 in Djokovic's favour.
"To win against the best player in the world, the longest match I've ever played ... I'm overwhelmed," he said after the match.
The match was forced into a second day after time restrictions forced the two stars from the court at 11pm local time the previous night, sending the tournament into a pit of controversy as fans fired up over the women's final being delayed.
"It really could have gone either ways," said Djokovic, who is bidding for a fourth championship at the All England Club and 13th Grand Slam title overall.
"Basically until the last shot, I didn't know if I was going to win."
He'll face Kevin Anderson in Sunday's final. Anderson beat John Isner in a six-hour semi-final that ended at 26-24 fifth set Friday night, pushing back the start of Djokovic vs. Nadal.
The second semi-final then was halted when the third set ended just past 11 p.m., because of a neighborhood curfew. It had started with Centre Court's retractable roof closed and so concluded that way, too, even though there was no hint of rain.
It all made for an unusual schedule, with the start of the women's final - normally the stand-alone showcase on the fortnight's last Saturday - delayed until Nadal and Djokovic finished.
Djokovic hasn't won a major in more than two years, dealing with an injured right elbow that was so painful in 2017 he quit his quarterfinal at Wimbledon and sat out the rest of the season. He had surgery in February, but his results were still shaky.
Until now, that is. His defense and returning are as good as ever and made the difference in his 52nd career tour-level meeting with Nadal, more than any other two men have played.
"In my opinion, he deserved it," Nadal said. "I deserved it, too." Undaunted by losing a lead and being forced to an extra set, Djokovic saved break points at 4-all and 7-all in the fifth, before breaking Nadal at love to end things.
"It's hard to pick the words," said Djokovic, who has won his past eight five-setters at Wimbledon. "I'm just going through things, flashbacks of the last 15 months, and everything I've been through to get here." As intense as any athletes in any sport, these two didn't exactly slowly ramp things up when they returned to Centre Court about 14 hours after they'd departed.
Having the roof shut meant every sound was amplified as it ricocheted off the dome - the thwack of ball off racket, the players' grunts, the spectators' applause.
This was high-decibel, high-stakes, high-quality tennis between two of the greats right from the get-go, beginning with an 18-point, six-deuce game that last 15 minutes and felt truly pivotal. It included a 23-stroke exchange and three others of at least 11. Nadal saved two break points and when he finally held, the owner 17 major championships, two at Wimbledon, punched the air and yelled as if he'd won the match, not a solitary game.
When Nadal broke in Saturday's second game, a dismayed Djokovic grabbed a spare ball and whacked it with his racket against the wall behind the baseline. Fortunately, he was at the end of the court farthest from the Royal Box, where the pair of visiting Duchesses, Kate and the newly married Meghan, sat in the front row.
There were other such displays of emotion from Djokovic, who is prone to yelling at himself or at his coach. He reacted by getting broken again to trail 5-3 in that set by raising his left shoe and violently pounding his racket against it - one, two, three, four times. Moments later, he got to love-40 before Nadal took five points in a row to serve out the set.
But it was Djokovic who tended to be better down the stretch in his 52nd career meeting against Nadal in a contest that seemed as if it should be worth a trophy.
- With AP
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