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.
When Djokovic broke Dimitrov in the third game of the second set, it appeared that he might be ready to check out entirely. When he missed out on his first break opportunity of the match, it seemed even more certain. But Dimitrov broke him twice and the match was level.
The third-set tiebreaker was no contest. Djokovic served impeccably and, with the slightest of openings at 2-4, Dimitrov double-faulted. The final point was vintage Djokovic, featuring a series of deep forehands to Dimitrov's backhand side that eventually caused the Bulgarian to crack and drop one into the net.
On a larger scale, this was good news for Djokovic, because every time he had won a tiebreaker at Wimbledon he went on to win the match. It's now happened 17 times.
Dimitrov contributed to his own demise with a horrifically loose serve game at 1-all in the fourth. He missed seven straight serves -- compiling three double faults -- and then slapped a forehand long.
Strangely, Djokovic chose this moment to lose his touch and Dimitrov broke him back.
And so it went, back and forth, and the level of play soared to, well, majestic.
Dimitrov fashioned a 6-3 lead in the final tiebreaker, but the Serb never wavered. At 6-all, Dimitrov threw in a lethal double fault, his eighth of the match. He saved Djokovic's first match point, but not the second. A cross-court forehand ticked the top of the net and fell in, and Djokovic was through to his third Wimbledon final in four years.
A few days ago, Dimitrov said a changing of the guard in men's tennis was "around the corner." Not yet. Not just yet.
"I'm glad to be part of another entertaining match," Djokovic said. "I'm looking forward -- it's a big challenge, this Wimbledon final, the biggest we have in the sport. Especially considering I lost the last couple of Grand Slam finals."
Three U.S. boys into semifinals
What's wrong with American tennis? Plenty, if you consider that there were no U.S. players of either gender in the fourth round of these singles championships.
The junior boys, on the other hand, would beg to differ. They comprise 75 percent of the semifinals bracket, as three went through Friday -- on the Fourth of July.
Unseeded Noah Rubin, an 18-year-old New Yorker, defeated Tim Van Rijthoven 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5). Rubin, a product of John McEnroe's tennis academy on Long Island, will meet fellow American Taylor Harry Fritz, who was a 7-5, 6-7 (5), 7-5 winner over Italy's Filippo Baldi. Fritz is a 16-year-old from Rancho Santa Fe, California.
No. 6 seed Stefan Kozlov, 16, from Pembroke Pines, Florida, defeated Hyeon Chung of South Korea 6-4, 7-6 (6). On Saturday he will play France's Johan Sebastien Tatlot, who was a 7-6 (5), 6-1 winner over Britain's Joshua Sapwell.
The funny thing? Francis Tiafoe, the world's No. 2-ranked junior, from the Washington D.C., area, lost to Rubin in the third round.
Three-for-four in doubles, too
Defending Wimbledon champions Bob and Mike Bryan are through to the final. They handled the French team of Michael Llodra and Nicolas Mahut 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-2. Both teams were credited with only one unforced error.
The 36-year-old California twins are seeking their record 99th career title. Their opponents? The unseeded team of 21-year-old Nebraskan Jack Sock and Canadian Vasek Pospisil, who defeated the No. 5-seeded team of Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-4.