Adversity no problem for Djokovic

WIMBLEDON, England -- After missing an easy forehand on break point in the first set, Novak Djokovic turned to his vast camp on Wimbledon's Centre Court and glared incredulously. It was a look rarely displayed this season, given the Serb's mostly sizzling play.

Earlier in the set, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the French artist, won one of the points of the Championships by diving to his right, then swatting a volley to his left as if he was killing a fly, to further frustrate Djokovic.

No matter.

Even though the 24-year-old wasn't vintage, mirroring his play the entire fortnight, Djokovic was good enough to beat the ebullient Tsonga 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-7 (9), 6-3 and reach a maiden final at Wimbledon, the tournament he first loved as a child.

Regardless of the result Sunday, he's guaranteed to replace Rafael Nadal as the No. 1 in men's tennis, the first time in 7½ years someone other than Nadal or Roger Federer has been on top.

"This is one of the best feelings you can have on a tennis court," Djokovic said afterward in a televised interview. "My dreams are coming true. I've been working all my life for this. When you know you're going to be the best in the world and you're reaching the final of your favorite tournament, it's something special."

If Djokovic loses the finale to Nadal, who battles home hope Andy Murray in Friday's other semifinal, a few will argue he shouldn't sit atop the rankings since Nadal would have won the past two majors.

Yes, let the debate begin.

Djokovic's 47-1 record in 2011 speaks for itself. And let's not forget his Australian Open title and sweep of the spring Masters Series events at Indian Wells and Miami. To borrow a phrase from Federer, Nadal created a monster by dominating in 2010 and was thus always vulnerable to being usurped.

Four times Djokovic has beaten Nadal in 2011, twice on the Spaniard's favorite surface, and his lone loss came in an extraordinary clash of the titans versus Federer at the French Open.

The evidence is there.

"They don't give you a lot of chances to become No. 1," Djokovic said of the dynamic duo, a smile surfacing. "So I guess you need to lose only one match in seven months to get there. If you can do that, well done."

How he's matured over the past year, which was first spurred by leading Serbia to the Davis Cup title in December.

Twelve months ago in the Wimbledon semifinals -- coincidentally facing another No. 12 seed, Tomas Berdych -- Djokovic essentially froze.

Far from the aggressive baseliner succeeding these days, Djokovic lingered behind the baseline and allowed the Czech to dictate throughout with his long, fluid strokes. He paid the price.

It happened for a mere half a set against Tsonga.

Trailing by an early break, Djokovic awoke and from then on constantly pestered Tsonga on his serve. Unlike in the quarterfinals, when Tsonga handed Federer his first loss in 179 Grand Slam matches after leading by two sets, there were rarely free points on serve. Tsonga saved his first six break points before Djokovic went 5-for-6.

"He returns unbelievable all the time on his baseline, so it's tough," Tsonga told reporters.

When Tsonga offered up his last comeback, rallying from a break down twice in the third set and saving two match points to force a fourth set, Djokovic didn't slam his racket, as he did confronting Marcos Baghdatis in the third round. Instead, he walked to his chair and sat down calmly, refocusing.

"Any doubts have been erased about his toughness," said John McEnroe, who is commentating for host network BBC. "That's how to get it done when you face adversity."

Tsonga, and his high-risk, adrenaline-fueled game, was always going to struggle. Djokovic has said more than once this Wimbledon he struggles with his movement on grass, yet that's a bit like saying Federer can't play on clay. Djokovic unleashed a dazzling backhand down the line, scrambling to his left, to seal the fifth game of the fourth set. The balls kept coming back, and with interest.

Tsonga, too, didn't play as well as he did two days ago. He couldn't. There had to be some sort of letdown.

At least he was still spontaneous and free, which he has been since splitting with longtime coach Eric Winogradsky.

Tsonga dived around the court like a soccer goalie trying to save a penalty kick. He offered up a difficult, athletic smash in the third set and threw in a couple of one-handed backhands -- he normally uses two hands. His box rose in unison in the third-set tiebreaker when he put away a volley following a netcord.

Three times he hit the deck, lunging for volleys.

"This is the only surface you can really dive, because on the others, if you dive you go directly to the hospital," Tsonga said.

But in the end, it was Djokovic on his back in celebration.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.