The world No. 17 Swiss has been in the shadow of Roger Federer his whole career, but with his one-handed backhand on full show against Djokovic, plus a strong service game and at times lethal forehand, he put in a tremendous showing.
Wawrinka came out on fire taking the first set 6-1 in just 25 minutes and then was leading 5-2 in the second, and serving for the set at 5-3, but as expected Djokovic hit back.
When the world No. 1 won the second and third sets it would have been reasonable to expect Wawrinka to fold up and call it a night after playing the outstanding tennis he did early in the match, but the 27-year-old was ready to dig in for the performance of his career.
Wawrinka was able to hit back to win the fourth set to force a fifth set decider, but eventually it was Djokovic who prevailed 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7, 12-10 in five hours and two minutes with the match not finishing until close to 2am in Melbourne.
The Swiss completely dominated the Serb early in the match unlike anyone has been able to do to him for years. That saw Wawrinka cruise to a 6-1, 5-2 lead. He then was up 30-0 serving for the second set at 5-3, but Djokovic showed his fight to work his way back into the contest.
He was able to win the second set 7-5 and then the third 6-4 to appear to have broken the back of Wawrinka, who was now starting to show signs of wear and tear with an upper left leg injury.
It didn’t curtail his shot-making, though, with his backhand in particular in fine form. Both players traded service breaks early in the fourth set, but then settled and it went to a tie-break where it was Wawrinka who stunned the world No. 1 winning seven points to five to force a decider.
From the ninth game of the fifth set onwards, neither player came close to losing a break of serve but it was Djokovic who had the advantage of serving first.
After holding serve to go up 11-10, he was able to get on top of Wawrinka's serve in the 22nd game of the set and even though the Swiss was able to save two match points, he couldn’t hold off a third as Djokovic celebrated the win by ripping his shirt off as he did in last year's final over Rafael Nadal.
The stats from the match were incredible with Djokovic winning 209 total points to Wawrinka's 200, but the Swiss hitting 69 winners to the Serb's 51.
Wawrinka fired down 16 aces to Djokovic's seven while both did well converting break points. Djokovic won 7-of-15 and Wawrinka 7-of-18.
Wawrinka knew that if ever he was going to beat one of the big guns in the sport in a Grand Slam he had just had perhaps his best opportunity, but if he can replicate that tennis on a regular basis he will challenge for more titles down the track.
He left the court in tears, but had won the admiration of the tennis world.
Wawrinka has won three ATP singles titles and has been ranked as high as No. 9 in the world, but has never been past a quarter-final after two attempts at Grand Slams, but based on his game against Djokovic, he is a chance to do that in 2013.
Wawrinka said it was the performance of his career so far.
"If I was up two sets, I don't think the result will change, but it's by far my best match I ever play, especially in five sets against the No.1 player," Wawrinka said.
"For sure I'm really sad, it's a big disappointment to lose that match, but I think there is more positive than negative. At the end he was still there. He was playing great tennis. We were both tired but I really fight like a dog."
Djokovic was full of admiration for the efforts of Wawrinka after the match and wanted to make sure he didn’t think of his quarter-final opponent Tomas Berdych until tomorrow.
"It's really hard to find the words to describe the feeling that we had tonight, especially in the fifth set. He deserved it equally to be the winner of this match and I give him a lot of credit, and all my respect," Djokovic said.
"He showed his qualities and he was the aggressive player on the court, and I was just trying to hang in there and fight, and give my last drop of energy. This match means a lot to me, and to him obviously, going into five hours and it's just incredible that it's almost two in the morning and so many people stayed to watch.
"This match could have gone either way and I'm just thrilled to be through. My body feels great, it was only five hours out there for that match. It is only midway through the tournament, but this felt like a final to me and I will now try to enjoy every single moment of this before thinking about my quarters tomorrow."