- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 25, 2012

MELBOURNE, Australia — With Novak Djokovic clutching his leg and struggling to breathe, it looked like the “Big 4” semifinal lineup at the Australian Open might not come together.

Then Djokovic’s championship instincts kicked in.

The top-ranked Serb held off No. 5 David Ferrer in a second-set tiebreaker Wednesday night and then raced through the third set for a 6-4, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1 win, setting up a rematch of last year’s final against fourth-ranked Andy Murray.

Order was restored.

For 10 days, nearly everyone at Melbourne Park has talked about the top four players and how they are on a higher level than the rest of men’s tennis.

But with the other three already in the semis, Djokovic looked to be in trouble in the second set.

“No, I don’t have any physical issues,” Djokovic said, playing down any health concerns. “I feel very fit and I feel mentally, as well, very fresh.

“It’s just today I found it very difficult after a long time to breathe because I felt the whole day my nose was closed a little bit. I just wasn’t able to get enough oxygen.”

The win ensured that the top four men reached the semifinals for the third time in four Grand Slams. Murray beat Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 earlier Wednesday, while second-ranked Rafael Nadal and No. 3 Roger Federer already were preparing for their semifinal showdown. It will mark their 10th clash at a major but their first meeting at that stage of a Grand Slam since 2005.

Doubts about Djokovic’s temperament surfaced after he won his first major at the 2008 Australian Open. He went another 11 majors before reaching another Grand Slam final, which he lost.

In his first title defense in 2009, he struggled with breathing problems and the heat and had to retire from his quarterfinal match against Andy Roddick.

Trying again to defend the Australian Open title, and again in the quarterfinals, Djokovic, 24, was leading by a set and a break when he dropped a service game against Ferrer.

At break point, he scrambled to hit a defensive lob on his backhand and didn’t even wait for it to land out before turning to face the back of the court, grabbing at the back of his left leg. He leaned over and rested his head on the top of his racket. Ferrer was back in contention.

For the rest of the set, Djokovic sneaked looks at his coaches and team in the stands. He cajoled himself at the baseline and took time between points.

At times he looked exhausted. At times he looked sore.

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