As the quarter-finalists lined up, Roger Federer found himself among a quartet of big men with big serves. John Isner, Milos Raonic and Kevin Anderson, respectively, topped the aces count for the tournament, with Isner and Federer the only men yet to be broken.
That of course would change before the other big man, Juan Martin del Potro, took to court against Rafael Nadal to determine who would join Novak Djokovic in the bottom half semi-final.
Anderson battered another 28 aces past Federer in their five-set thriller, and would await fellow ‘ace’ Isner in the other semi, who notched up another 25 aces to put out Canadian Raonic, 6-7(5), 7-6(7), 6-4, 6-3.
But it was a fascinating face-off in store between Nadal and del Potro, who had played one another 15 times before. And while Nadal had a clear lead, 10-5, they had shared the last four.
Both men were in fine form, had enjoyed great seasons, and both won multiple titles. Of course, Nadal’s remarkable run on clay, having missed the North American swing with injury, brought record wins at the Monte Carlo and Rome Masters, Barcelona and Roland Garros. But del Potro’s run to his first Masters title in Indian Wells, plus the Acapulco title, the Auckland final and semis at both the French Open and the Miami Masters, was also a strong one—and both were well rested after bypassing planned appearances on the grass of Queen’s.
It meant that they were among the most prolific winners of the year so far, with 36 wins apiece. Now they would meet on grass for the first time in seven years, the same year that Nadal last got beyond the fourth round here. In 2011, he made the final: this was his first quarter-final since.
Del Potro had, in fact, reached the semis here more recently than Nadal, in 2013, in what would be one of the matches of the tournament, a five-set marathon loss to Djokovic. The Argentine had also shown his grass credentials to win the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics, played at Wimbledon.
Nadal had already made a promising start this year by reaching the quarters without dropping a set for the first time. Indeed, he had dropped just 36 games en route to the quarters, the lowest number of games he had ever dropped in his opening four matches.
In contrast, del Potro’s fourth round match against Gilles Simon, spread over two days, was the longest match of the tournament so far, with del Potro finally winning, 7-6(1), 7-6(5), 5-7, 7-6(5)—longer even than the Federer-Anderson five-setter earlier on quarter-final day.
In the end, the last match of the day would outlast all of them.
The first set went to the Spaniard with a last-minute break, 7-5, in a little under an hour. In the second set, an exchange of breaks meant a tie-break: Nadal took the early lead, 4-2, but the Argentine thumped his way back to level terms, and got the point against Nadal’s serve for 7-6(7).
It was Nadal who bristled with energy, who pumped at each point won, and del Potro who moved in his ever-languid fashion, but who summoned up huge energy and power during the rallies. When he was offered up three break points—set points—in the 10th game, the Argentine hit a forehand winner to break for the set, 6-4.
Del Potro was going after his shots, made 16 winners, and both men were making precious few unforced errors. But Nadal had the greater physical energy and presence of the court. He got the break in the fifth game after del Potro fell over—a scenario that repeated many times in the coming games. It was enough for Nadal to hold for the set, 6-4, though even these relatively straightforward sets were taking three quarters of an hour to finish.
They headed to a deciding fifth, and del Potro had to dig deep early. He looked weary, and with so many wrist surgeries in his history, it was nerve wracking to see him diving for balls at the net. But he came through four deuces to hold after two falls, and the greatest efforts of Nadal could do nothing about it—even hurtling into the front row of the crowd to retrieve a ball.
However, the break did come for the Spaniard, after he himself fell twice in the fifth game. A signature cross-court backhand winner did the job. But would that be enough?
The next game suggested not, as Nadal had to hold off two break points through a long, testing game. He survived, but del Potro was not about to give up the fight. He punished Nadal through another long service game, 12 minutes, winner after winner, with Nadal throwing in drop shot after drop shot in death by a thousand cuts against del Potro.
It worked, the Spaniard held, but then the Argentine still pulled off a cracking love hold, 4-5.
They had already been playing half an hour longer than the marathon Anderson-Federer match. Now Nadal stepped up to serve for the match, and with 4hrs 48mins on the clock, he sealed victory, 6-4, with del Potro once again felled.
Nadal was quickly across the net to go and embrace his opponent at the baseline. It was a moving gesture, welcomed by the Argentine, but it was all joy on one side as Nadal finally took the cheers of the crowd, and del Potro dragged himself from court.
Nadal had faced 77 winners, 33 aces, and next faces the prospect of an astonishing 52nd meeting with his greatest rival, fellow former champion Djokovic. Back, then, to that 2011 meeting, their title match here, Nadal’s last time in the final four, and a victory for Djokovic.
It will not be a title bout this time, but it will make compelling viewing all the same.
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BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge
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