“If both players are playing their best, who would win?”
That phrase usually comes up when we’re trying to decide which legendary player would win a theoretical match against another legend. But how often do we see two players bring their best at the same time in front of our eyes? Usually, if one of them is hot, the other one is not. Playing well, almost by definition, means you’re not letting your opponent also play well.
But that’s what made the fifth set of Rafael Nadal’s 7-5, 6-7 (7), 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 win over Juan Martin del Potro in the Wimbledon quarterfinals on Wednesday so special, and so thrilling. By that stage, after four hours of ebbs and flows, of lead changes and momentum changes, of bullet winners and dashing gets, of dives across the grass and dives into the bleachers, Rafa and Delpo really were throwing their best at each other.
Daily Serve—Recapping an incredible day of quarterfinal play at Wimbledon:
The match had begun with Nadal firmly in command. He had won their last two meetings at the majors, in the semis of last September’s US Open and the semis at last month’s French Open. Each time, del Potro had hit the ball well to start, only to see his good play inspire better, smarter play from Nadal. Del Potro has everything that’s typically needed to trouble Nadal—height, a huge serve, a point-ending forehand, a two-handed backhand—but in Paris he seemed curiously unwilling, or unable, to make the most of those weapons. The same pattern held today. Rather than come out with both guns blazing on grass, Del Potro was content to rally with Rafa. Even on a fast court, we know how that’s usually going to turn out.
Then something odd happened. As Nadal and del Potro reached middle of the second set on Centre Court, Roger Federer lost on No. 1 Court. Did Rafa realize it, and did new thoughts of winning the title affect him? Either way, he suddenly lost his usual initiatve and intensity, and was broken. Worse, up 6-3 in the tiebreaker—one more winner would have given him a two-set lead and virtually sealed a victory—Nadal lost six of the next seven points, one of them on a double fault at 6-5. Score-wise and confidence-wise, del Potro was in the match for the first time. He closed out the second set with a roar, and closed out the third set with a 100-m.p.h. forehand winner. Del Potro would finish with 33 aces and 77 winners.
But if Nadal wasn’t quite ready to cross the finish line in straight sets, he wasn’t ready to go away, either. He kept forcing del Potro to hit winners in the fourth set, until the Argentine couldn’t do it anymore. One bad game from del Potro on serve was all Rafa needed. Serving at 5-4, he closed out the fourth set the way he hadn’t closed out the second, by hitting aggressively, moving forward and finishing points at the net.
The first four sets, it turned out, were just an elaborate set-up for the fifth. When Del Potro steadied again in the early going, the points lengthened, and the two players began to push and pull each other up and back and side to side, trying to create openings any way they could. The rallies were reminiscent of the ones that Nadal and del Potro played in their classic semifinal at the Rio Olympics in 2016: Each player tried to manuever into position for a forehand, while at the same time doing whatever he could to avoid the other guy’s forehand.
The points soon turned into long, compelling, tactical dances. Sometimes those dances ended with one of them flying through the air. At 1-1 in the fifth set, del Potro dove across the court to stab a winning volley; a minute later, Nadal dove into the front row while trying to track down an overhead.
Nadal went up a break and served at 4-3, but the question remained: How do you beat del Potro when he has stopped missing, and virtually every forehand he touches turns into a winner? Rafa never found the answer in Rio, but he did today, and it was one he may never have used to win a match before: his forehand drop shot. Over the course of a 15-minute service game at 4-3, Nadal went to the forehand drop time and again. He hit the shot perfectly, but it almost wasn’t enough. Del Potro tracked one down and flipped it for a winner, and he earned three break points. But Nadal somehow survived.
At 5-4, he survived again. Del Potro ripped a forehand winner to reach 30-30, but against Nadal, you always have to do it again. This time del Potro couldn’t. On the final point, with the light starting to die, Nadal tried another unusual tactic; he followed his serve into net. Del Potro, trying to chase down Rafa’s volley, slipped and fell, and as the chair umpire called “Game, set match,” he buried his head in the dirt behind the baseline. It was a fitting end. del Potro, a showman whether he wins or loses, almost seemed to revel in the moment of valiant defeat.
“I wanted to stay there all night long,” he said later.
Instead, when Nadal walked to his side of the court, del Potro stood up. After four hours and 47 minutes, there was nothing left for them to do but embrace.
“He’s an amazing player, an amazing opponent,” Nadal said. “In some ways he deserves to win this match, too.”
This is what happens when Nadal and del Potro play their best together. Both deserved to win, but it was Rafa, who has never been more resourceful, who found a way across the finish line.
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.
WATCH: NOW AVAILABLE AT THE ITUNES STORE