NEW YORK — It was a single tennis game that lasted 21 minutes.
He and Novak Djokovic, the No. 1-ranked player in the world, contested 30 points, and on that 30th — with Wawrinka jumping up and down and Djokovic raising his arms to the crowd, asking those in Arthur Ashe Stadium to cheer louder — Wawrinka held serve.
In a U.S. Open men's semifinal that lasted 4 hours 9 minutes and was eventually won by the top-seeded Djokovic, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, holding serve might not seem like a big deal.
But it was the perfect snapshot of a match that was fought as if it were two hungry lions on the court.
"I was thinking, I guess everyone was thinking, that whoever wins this game is going to win the match," Djokovic said. "I even said to myself, 'I guess I have to fight against those odds.' I did."
Wawrinka left the match not feeling like a loser.
"It's a strange feeling, but I think I need to take the positive of this loss," Wawrinka said. "I had to find everything I had in my body to stay with him, and he won the match. But for me, yeah, I still think it was a good tournament. And even if I lost, I was still happy to hear all the cheering. It's something quite amazing for me."
This will be Nadal and Djokovic's 37th meeting, the most between two male players in the Open era. Nadal leads 21-15.
Djokovic is going into his fourth straight U.S. Open final, aiming for his second U.S. Open title and looking for a seventh Grand Slam Championship.
He said that for much of the match, Wawrinka was the better player.
"He was aggressive and played better tennis," Djokovic said. "Me, on the other hand, I just tried to hang on and fight and be mentally tough. I sincerely believed that as the match progressed, the longer it went, I had maybe the physical edge and that I, also being in these situations on a big stage in the semifinals, maybe that experience could give me a little bit more confidence."
Djokovic started slowly and played defensively.
It was as if the 26-year-old from Serbia expected that Wawrinka — who had never played in a major semifinal, never beaten a No. 1-ranked player and was 2-12 against Djokovic — would be nervous or unsteady and just hand Djokovic the match.
About two hours in, Djokovic realized that was not to be the case. In fact, at the end, it turned out that each player had won 165 points. It was that even.
Wawrinka would take hard falls and hit balls so forcefully that Djokovic would have to back away and fight for a single hold for 30 minutes.
The second semifinal was much less dramatic, and it was Nadal's 21st straight win on hard courts, not his favorite surface. (That would be clay, where he's won eight of his 12 Grand Slam titles.) But playing against Djokovic makes Nadal happy.
"He's an amazing competitor," Nadal said. "His results say he is probably one of the best players I have ever seen."
Nadal, who missed the U.S. Open last year because of a knee injury, is now into the 12th final of the 13 tournaments he has played this year and into his 18th Grand Slam-level final.