LONDON -- Going through this tournament, Novak Djokovic had been less than his best.
His usually razor-sharp chops were slightly off in the early rounds -- and, frankly, he sometimes had difficulty staying on his feet. Against Grigor Dimitrov in the Wimbledon semifinals, even with a few extra pairs of fresh shoes, that wasn't going to be good enough. So on Friday, Djokovic found that splendid top gear that had been absent.
On an incessantly blustery day, Djokovic came out and landed his first 19 first serves in the box, including five aces. What was once a weakness he has turned into a stroke of strength, and Djokovic rode it to a 27-minute first-set victory. After 3 hours, 2 minutes, it was official.
Djokovic prevailed in a sun-drenched 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (7) and advanced to Sunday's championship final against the winner Roger Federer, a straight-sets win over Milos Raonic in the second semifinal. The final set was extraordinary stuff; Djokovic saved four set points, three in that breathless tiebreaker.
At times, Dimitrov was the dashing 23-year-old who raced through the draw here. There were others -- in a handful of critical moments -- when his nerves betrayed the fact this was his first Grand Slam semifinal. The two players had all kinds of difficulty finding traction on the baked, burnt-out baseline of Centre Court.
"Again, like last match against [Marin] Cilic, I allowed my opponent to come back in the match," said Djokovic, who embraced Dimitrov warmly at net. "He deserves respect -- he was fighting. The fourth set could have gone either way."
The match was supremely entertaining; the sports royalty in the royal box -- Grand Slam legends like Rod Laver and Jack Nicklaus, along with former US Open champion Justin Rose -- applauded early and often. So did Djokovic's coach, Boris Becker, a three-time Wimbledon champion.
Djokovic, with all due respect to Rafael Nadal, is the most complete player in the world. Dimitrov couldn't afford to sit on the baseline and trade groundstrokes with him. The question coming into the match: Could Dimitrov do to Djokovic what he did to defending champion Andy Murray in the quarterfinals? Could he continually come to net and disrupt Djokovic's rhythm? Could he throw him off balance with the wondrous one-hand backhand slice? Seven-time Grand Slam champion John McEnroe called it the best one he's seen in years, and its tricky trajectory thoroughly bamboozled Murray. A BBC graphic showed that on average Dimitrov's sliced backhand bounces more than a yard lower than his normal topspin shot.
The answer to all these questions: sometimes.
Dimitrov did not reveal any nerves across the first four games. He seemed relaxed and focused, and when he stepped up to serve at 2-all, there was no hint that he was about to unravel in disastrous fashion:
Djokovic hit a ball that appeared to be going out, but Dimitrov volleyed it -- way too hard -- and missed. Clearly, it stayed in his head, because his subsequent second serve missed by more than two feet. An awkward backhand sailed into the net and, finally, an ill-fated forehand. He was done at love and, soon, in the first frame.