Nadal Edges Delpo In Wimbledon Epic
Spaniard comes through for Djokovic semi-final test
World No. 1 and two-time former champion Rafael Nadal dug deep and played with great courage on Wednesday to edge past fifth-seeded Argentine Juan Martin del Potro 7-5, 6-7(7), 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 in a high drama encounter at The Championships.
Both players often found themselves on the grass in an all-time great match, which transfixed spectators on-site as England's footballers played Croatia in Moscow in the World Cup semi-finals. Nadal twisted and slid about from behind the baseline, once chasing a ball and ending up in the crowd, while Del Potro produce multiple diving volleys in the Centre Court classic that lasted four hours and 48 minutes.
"I am very happy the way that I survived a lot of important points in that fifth set," said Nadal. "I think I did a lot of things well. I went to the net. In general terms, [it has] been a positive match. Only negative thing is I played almost five hours, and I had the chance maybe to play less winning that second set.
"For the rest of the things, great news, semi-finals of Wimbledon again. Great match, emotional match for both of us and for the fans, too. Great feelings."
Nadal, who moves into his sixth semi-final at the All England Club, could not convert four set point chances in the second set tie-break, but withstood 77 winners — including 33 aces — from 2013 semi-finalist Del Potro in their sixth Grand Slam championship meeting (Nadal now leads 5-1).
The Spanish superstar, champion at Wimbledon in 2008 (d. Federer) and 2010 (d. Berdych), will now prepare to face Serbian No. 12 seed and three-time former titlist Novak Djokovic, who is returning to peak form at SW19, on Friday. Djokovic leads Nadal 26-25 in their FedEx ATP Head2Head series. Djokovic beat Kei Nishikori earlier in the day.
Nadal, aiming to capture his third Roland Garros-Wimbledon title double (2008, 2010), has compiled a 35-2 record on the season, which includes historic 11th titles at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters (d. Nishikori), the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell (d. Tsitsipas) and at Roland Garros (d. Thiem). The 32-year-old also lifted his eighth trophy at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia (d. Zverev).
Nadal needed to bide his time in a brilliant first set, which lasted 54 minutes and was full of long rallies. Del Potro was, at times, predictable in his service patterns and although he struck 14 winners, Nadal was patient. Del Potro recovered from 15/40 at 3-4, but hit a backhand into the net in the 12th game on Nadal's second set point opportunity.
The second set briefly swung in Del Potro’s favour, when Nadal committed four forehand errors at 4-4. Del Potro, who had hung in and fought hard, came within two points of clinching the set in the next game, but Nadal bounced back to strike a forehand winner into space for 5-5.
Clever service placement by Nadal, coupled with speed up the court, took him to a 6/3 lead in the tie-break. Yet a second double fault at 6/5 let Del Potro back in. Nadal was unable to return a big Del Potro serve at 7/6 and the popular Argentine grew in confidence. At 8/7, on his first set point, Del Potro struck a crosscourt forehand that hit the net cord and bounced too low for Nadal to scramble back.
"Of course I was worried when I lost the second set," said Nadal. "Winning 6-3 in the tie-break, it's true that he played two great points with his serve, but then I made a very important mistake. That double-fault was a big mistake. That's how it is. Then the match changed. He played well. I believe I increased little bit the level in the fourth and the fifth. But the fifth, he was playing huge, no? It was so difficult to stop him."
Nadal tightened up his game, but in serving second in the fourth set, he felt the pressure. Having lost just one of his service points in four games, Nadal found himself in a deep hole at 4-5, 0/40, when Del Potro’s aggression counted. Del Potro struck a forehand winner on his first set point opportunity to end the 44-minute set.
Prior to the start of the fourth set, Nadal took an off-court break and returned in a determined mood to break in the fifth game, largely courtesy of three forehand errors from Del Potro. On second serve returns, Nadal stepped in from behind the baseline and managed to wrestle the momentum away from Del Potro.
Two set point chances went begging at 5-3, with Del Potro serving at 30/40, when Nadal hit a slice backhand into the net, and at Ad-Out, when Del Potro hit a forehand winner. But the Spaniard remained focused and took the pair’s sixth Grand Slam championship meeting (Nadal leads 4-1) to a decider, finishing with a crosscourt backhand winner in a hold to 15.
Nadal appeared to be the fresher in the opening exchanges of the decider. But once again Del Potro had the advantage of serving first in the set and at 1-1, 30/30, both players showed just how much they wanted a place in the semi-finals on Friday. At the end of a lengthy baseline rally, Del Potro dived full length — a la Boris Becker — to return an angled backhand from Nadal that looked destined for a winner. Nadal soon used the drop shot to earn quick points, with Del Potro behind the baseline and he earned the break for a 3-2 lead.
"Once Rafa breaks my serves, then the match becomes difficult for me," said Del Potro. "I had also my chances to break back in the fifth, and I missed some forehands. I think the key of the match was only three, four points in the end, and he took the chances."
In a tense eighth game, which featured six deuces, Nadal saved four break points to take a 5-3 lead and edged closer to his 28th Grand Slam championship semi-final with a forehand winner. The Argentine kept working and fighting, but in fading light it was Nadal who held his nerve for a Friday blockbuster against Djokovic. At the end of one of Wimbledon's greatest matches, Nadal crossed the net to embrace Del Potro.
Del Potro had been bidding to record a 10th victory against a World No. 1, a result that would have seen him rise to a career-high No. 3 in the ATP Rankings on 16 July. This year’s champion at the Abierto Mexicano Telcel presentado por HSBC (d. Anderson) and BNP Paribas Open (d. Federer) is now 32-8 on the year.
"I think I played really good tennis today, but Rafa is Rafa, you know," he said. "Sometimes you play your best tennis and it's not enough to beat him. But I'm glad with my tournament. Physically I'm okay. That gives me confidence to keep going in the future."