Novak Djokovic played his best match. Serena Williams? Well, she needed to pull a Serena to move on.
Taking different approaches, the top seeds at Cincinnati reached the semifinals Friday, moving a step closer to a title that’s been tough for either of them to win.
Djokovic beat fifth-seeded Stan Wawrinka, 6-4, 6-1, knocking off the player who beat him for the French Open title. Williams followed on center court, struggled with her serve, and had to rally to beat Ana Ivanovic, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2.
“It’s like when you’re down and maybe down a break in a set and a set, and you pull a Serena is when you come back and win,” Williams said.
Third-seeded Andy Murray reached the semifinals by beating Richard Gasquet, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, his second straight three-set match. He’ll face Roger Federer, who eased through a 6-3, 6-4 win over Feliciano Lopez in only 61 minutes and is trying for his unprecedented seventh Cincinnati title.
Djokovic has never won at Cincinnati, the only one of the nine ATP Masters events that has eluded him. He’s trying to become the first to win all nine.
Williams won the tournament for the first time on her sixth try last year, beating Ivanovic in the final. She lost in the semifinals at Toronto last week and is using her week in Cincinnati as a final tuneup for the U.S. Open, where she’ll try to complete a rare Grand Slam sweep.
This one was ragged.
Williams got only 46 percent of her first serves in play and had 36 unforced errors. After dropping the first set, she fell behind 3-4 in the second set. At that point, she turned it around, breaking Ivanovic’s serve five times while pulling away.
“Usually there isn’t a point where I’m like, `Oh, I’m going to do this,’ but today there definitely was,” Williams said.
She dominated the last six games, advancing to a semifinal against 14th-seeded Elina Svitolina.
“Against top players, it’s not over until you shake the hand,” Ivanovic said. “You have to fight for each point. Especially Serena — every time she was down and her back against the wall, she came up with the best shots.”
By contrast, Djokovic needed only 63 minutes to reach the semifinals, looking fresh throughout the match. He had only eight unforced errors to 27 for Wawrinka, who was coming off a long, three-tiebreaker win Friday.
Djokovic has been bothered by a sore elbow that affected his serve. The elbow is better, and so was Djokovic’s serve — 85 percent accuracy during the first set.
“It was the best performance I had so far this week,” said Djokovic, who is 18-4 career against Wawrinka. “Came at the right time, against one of my biggest rivals and the guy I lost to last time we played in the finals of French Open.”
The two hadn’t played since the French Open. At 4-4 in the first set, Djokovic broke Wawrinka and went on to win the next five games, taking command.
“I think maybe I’m a little bit empty mentally to stay at my top,” Wawrinka said. “I’m generally happy with my tournament. I know where I am. There’s a lot of positives to take from this week: Winning two tough matches without playing my best tennis, fighting, staying there.”
Djokovic will play qualifier Alexandr Dolgopolov, who upset sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych, 6-4, 6-2. He’s the first qualifier to reach the semifinals in Cincinnati since 1994.
Murray was coming off a three-set evening match that lasted nearly three hours. He gritted through another one, taking control by winning five consecutive games in the second set.
“Physically it was tough to feel great,” Murray said. “Yeah, I did well to come through that one because I wasn’t feeling great last night.”
Playing a night match, Federer improved to 12-0 career against Lopez, who knocked off Rafael Nadal a day earlier. Federer is 13-11 against Murray and has won their last four matches, including a straight-set win in the semifinals at Wimbledon this year.
Federer has been encouraged by his play this week the Western & Southern, which he won last year.
“Honestly at this point, it’s not about playing for the (U.S.) Open,” he said. “It’s about defending my title here.”