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Novak Djokovic now one win away from major milestone

PARIS -- When we last saw Novak Djokovic, under a darkening Friday evening sky, he did not look anything like the best tennis player on the planet. He had won the first two sets in his semifinal with Andy Murray, but suddenly the Scot was back in the match after taking the third. Djokovic was yelling at himself and his box, hitting ill-advised shots and slowly unraveling like the Djokovic of his youth, emotional to a fault.

Less than 15 hours later, when he was hitting soft, smooth practice serves back on Philippe Chatrier, his composure seemed to have returned. But when the match was resumed Saturday afternoon with the score 3-all in the fourth, when the balls mattered, Djokovic again shrank from the moment. Groundstrokes that have looked so easy all season long became labored. Even when he was in position to hit out, his shots were tentative and, on many occasions, long. Those multi-bounce, pre-service rituals, an early career trademark, returned.

When Murray took the fourth set, it came down to an extraordinary winner-take-all fifth. The question: Could Djokovic, with all kinds of personal history awaiting, pull himself together? Would he overcome ... himself?

In a word, yes.

Djokovic closed emphatically, winning 6-3, 6-3, 5-7, 5-7, 6-1.

The extra session required 61 minutes and the match ran 4 hours, 9 minutes all told.

"No different from any other match we play," Djokovic said in a news conference just minutes after the victory. "It's always a marathon. This is one of the toughest ones we've had.

"I'm glad I was able to finish this match as a winner. I don't think I've done too much wrong. He came up with some great shots in the fourth."

Waiting for the weary winner in Sunday's final is Stan Wawrinka, who is looking for his second Grand Slam title in the past six, following is breakthrough at the 2014 Australian Open. Wawrinka probably enjoyed the suffering Djokovic endured in that fifth set.

The Swiss player comes into the final with a daunting 3-17 head-to-head mark, but he did beat Djokovic in Melbourne that year, 9-7 in the fifth set. Djokovic returned the favor earlier this year in Melbourne, winning 6-0 in the fifth.

Djokovic has now, almost ridiculously:

• Won 28 straight matches this year, and all 16 on clay.

• Won 25 of 26 Grand Slam matches in the past year.

• Beaten Murray eight straight times in a narrow span of 16 months, a remarkable number for the No. 3-ranked player among ATP World Tour professionals.

And now the No. 1-ranked Djokovic contemplates his first-ever French Open title and the completion of a career Grand Slam. There is even the rarer-than-rare chance for a single-season Grand Slam.

Once Djokovic disposed of Rafael Nadal, the nine-time French Open champion, there was a widespread assumption he would go on to win his first title at Roland Garros. Clearly, Murray did not get that email.

Murray, who was keen on springing one of the major upsets of this or any other season, has now gone 0-6 against the No. 1-ranked player on clay, but this was the first match that wasn't against Nadal.

Murray and Djokovic entered the match with identical 15-0 records on clay, though the Scot withdrew from Rome after winning his first match, citing exhaustion. Remarkably, though, Murray won the first and second clay-court titles of his career, in Munich and Madrid. But his French Open aspirations will have to wait.

"I played a loose game on my [first] serve [of the fifth set] with the new balls," Murray said. "I missed, I think, three balls long. Then I think Novak relaxed a little bit. After that, Novak was hitting the ball very close to the lines. Obviously, beginning of the fifth was good for him."

Murray declined to blame tournament officials for suspending the match Friday, when it appeared after a brief storm there was ample daylight to continue.

"Look, it was what it was," Murray said. "It finished the way it finished. It didn't hinder me."

He also declined to criticize Djokovic for taking what amounted to an eight-minute injury timeout Friday after losing the third set. A trainer treated a Djokovic leg injury in the locker room and, ultimately, that was a factor in the match's suspension.

Still, Murray has finally begun to master the intricacies of the surface, the sliding, the patience required, when to play defense -- and when to attack. This acquired knowledge gave him the tools he needed to take that fourth set.

Djokovic held in the first game of the fifth set, but Murray -- who had been all but flawless in finishing the fourth -- got a little loose. A series of errors gave Djokovic an easy break and he had gained the first advantage.

He essentially closed the deal with Murray serving at 1-4, hitting a pristine cross-court forehand winner that appeared to hit the sideline. A sweet ace, outside, ended it, but there was no celebration for Djokovic, who strode stoically to the net.

"It wasn't physically easy match, that is for sure," Djokovic said. "I think I'll be fine for the finals. Whatever I have left in me, I'll put out on the court tomorrow. Hopefully, it will be enough."