WIMBLEDON -- He was an implacable force, as cool and studied as his opponent across the net on Centre Court, Rafael Nadal, was passionate and hot. Novak Djokovic was back in the Wimbledon semifinals for the first time in three years Saturday, seemingly a different, changed man. Head bowed between points, eyes fixed on the grass at his toes, Djokovic stood ramrod straight, studying his strings as Nadal completed his pre-service rituals, dipping into that signature receiver's squat only at the last moment.
There were only the briefest glimpses of the "old" Djokovic, once given to tearing open his shirt, pounding his heart with a fist, bellowing in triumph. Hardship, like Djokovic's abrupt fall from the top and ensuing slump, can teach even an elite athlete the value of restraint.
But if the sound was gone, the fury was back. Djokovic, seeded just No. 12 here at Wimbledon, played a match that answered any lingering questions about the progress of his comeback. He and Nadal produced the second-longest and one of the most dazzling semifinals ever seen at Wimbledon. (The longest occurred Friday, when Kevin Anderson bested John Isner in a 6-hour, 36-minute marathon). Djokovic survived Nadal, extending his slim lead in their epic rivalry to 27-25, in 5 hours, 15 minutes, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9), 3-6, 10-8.
The match, which was halted with Djokovic leading by two sets to one Friday night because of the 11 p.m. Wimbledon curfew, resumed at 1 p.m. (pushing back the women's final) under the Centre Court roof. The unpredictable swings of momentum continued to the very end. Players often cite things they might have done differently during the postmortems in the press room, but not this time:
"Normally I am very critical with myself," Nadal said afterward. "[But] I hit a great shots. I played aggressive. I missed balls -- not too many, but I missed some ones. When you play with that intensity, with that level of risk, that level of passion, sometimes you go over, no?"
Nadal asserted that he had no complaints. Nothing he would have done differently, taken back, or tweaked. He felt he played a great match, and so did Djokovic, who beat him fair and square.
"I have not much more inside me," he added. "I give my best, and that's it."
The human interest angle is always of interest in matches like this one, and it could be pursued on behalf of either man. But sometimes the more germane story has more to do with some less compelling aspect of the match, something technical.
In this match, it was hard to overlook the advantage Djokovic had because he hits a flatter, more laser-like ball off both sides. His shots simply travel on a flatter trajectory, arrive faster, and land deeper than Nadal's, whose topspin shots were purpose-built for a very different surface, clay.
Nadal makes plenty of brilliant shots on grass, but it's not because he has great grass-court strokes. The closeness of this match was a tribute to Nadal's courage as a competitor, the outcome a commendation of Djokovic's composure at those times when the momentum shifted in Nadal's favor.
"He's probably the greatest fighter ever to play this game," Djokovic said. "He battles every single point like it's his last. You come into the match against him knowing that you have to earn your points. It's already an energy-spending moment."
Conserving energy is of paramount importance in a match with Nadal, but it's only a partial explanation of the bearing Djokovic had on court. Since the beginning of his slump, the 31-year-old Serbian star gravitated toward attitudes that can loosely be called zen-like or focused on inner peace and equilibrium. Those inclinations helped him control his emotions during some rough patches against Nadal.
"When you're playing such a high level, against one of the biggest rivals, probably my biggest rival ever, it's quite intense," Djokovic said. "There's a lot of emotions in play. A lot at stake. It's important to take in and accept whatever is happening and try to kind of possess the calm mind, because the calm mind in the end wins."
That end is in sight for Djokovic now, the last hurdle Sunday's final against a presumably depleted Kevin Anderson. The No. 8 seed had the day off Saturday, but he's played over 15 hours of tennis in his past three rounds. He came into the tournament dealing with a chronic hamstring injury, for which he's been wearing compression shorts. He wasn't even sure how to approach his recovery from the semifinal, having never been involved in so long a match.
"I think we're going to play it by ear, see how I feel, see how my body reacts in the morning," Anderson said Friday night. "My feet are sore, they're swollen. The legs are pretty jelly-like. Ideally I'd like to get out and hit for maybe 30 minutes, just to keep the eye in. I want to try to keep the same sort of routines that we've been having."
Those aren't optimal circumstances for a player about to face a 12-time Grand Slam singles titlist. Djokovic's profile as a player is also loaded with challenges for a player of Anderson's height (6-foot-8) and state of fatigue.
Djokovic is a superb baseline player who can jerk a player every which way, including north and south to and from the net. He's also a master of the aggressive service return, against even a high-quality server like Anderson, who ranks second to Isner as the leading ace-producer in this tournament, 172 to 214. Anderson would probably be best off ramping up his offense, trying to smother Djokovic with a display of power serving. The lean and sinewy native of South Africa has been impressive from the baseline, holding his own when he upset Federer in the quarterfinals. But barring a stunning letdown by Djokovic, Anderson can't compete in that department.
But then, Djokovic's comeback has been marred by a number of setbacks that occurred just when he was in a similar if less high-profile position. Remember, he lost in the recent French Open quarterfinals to a journeyman who hadn't won a match in a previous Grand Slam tournament.
You can bet Anderson will have thought of that before the two men walk out for the coin toss.