LONDON, GREAT BRITAIN: High quality, high drama, high stakes - what else does sport need? Roger Federer's 36 76(5) 19-17 victory over Juan Martin Del Potro in the first Olympic men's semifinal had all three as the Swiss booked himself a place in the gold medal match at London 2012.
In a marathon encounter, Federer levelled the match on a second set tiebreak and didn't get his first break against the big-serving Argentine until the 19th game of the final set, only to throw it away a game later as del Potro broke him as he served for the match. In amazing scenes on Centre Court where the Swiss had most of the support, Federer had to serve to stay in the match seven more times before he broke the towering Argentine for a 18-17 lead, finally serving it out for an emotional victory.
The rollercoaster match, which lasted 4 hours 26 minutes, set a new record as the longest three-set men’s singles match, in time spent on court, in the Open Era. The previous longest men’s three-set singles match came in the semifinals at 2009 Madrid, when Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic 36 76(5) 76(9) in 4 hours 3 minutes.
Federer's dream of an Olympic gold medal now remains on course, and he is guaranteed a medal for the first time in his career, 12 years after he contested – and lost – the bronze medal play-off against France’s Arnaud di Pasquale at Sydney in 2000. He will play Andy Murray in a repeat of the Wimbledon final on Sunday.
Afterwards the 17-time Grand Slam champion likened the match to a Grand Slam final. “The emotions I felt were as strong as winning a Grand Slam almost. But of course you have to hopefully save some for Sunday so you can't go overly crazy. But I was very, very touched at the end.”
“But I was tense. I was nervous,” he continued. “Obviously I was seeing myself as the loser many times during the match. But at the same time also I did see myself with medals. So you go through many emotions. You just hope somehow you come out on the other side as a winner and secure yourself a medal, which is now the case.”
It was a devastating result for world No. 9 del Potro, who had made all the early running and was the more aggressive player in the opening stages and for much of the match. The Argentine must now seek consolation in Sunday's bronze medal play-off when he faces the loser of Murray v Djokovic.
Federer went into their semifinal clash as the clear favourite thanks to a 12-2 head-to-head advantage: he hadn’t lost to del Potro in previous six meetings, five of which were this year. But one of del Potro’s victories had been in the final of the 2009 US Open, where he won in five sets to capture his first Grand Slam title, and the biggest clue as to what lay ahead today was probably in their five-set battle in the Roland Garros quarterfinals this year, when Federer was forced to win from two-set-to-love down.
In windy but sunny conditions on Centre Court, del Potro came out on the attack, survived a challenge to his serve in the third game with some impressive serving and continued to put the pressure on the Swiss with his powerful forehand and huge presence at the net. His chance came as Federer struggled with his serve in the eighth game and he moved to 15-40, clinched the vital break to get a 5-3 lead and served out to love in the next game.
The second set was an intense and high-quality affair as the spectators on a packed Centre Court were treated to some dramatic exchanges as both men raised their games. Federer battled to two breakpoints on del Potro’s serve at advantage in the second game, but still he couldn’t seize the initiative, as del Potro snuffed out the first with an ace, and the second by winning a punishing baseline rally.
The Swiss looked in trouble in the fifth game when del Potro got a breakpoint at 2-2 as he hit a backhand winner; Federer saved it with an ace but the Argentine took him to deuce five times before the world No. 1 was able to move clear. The Swiss had another breakpoint against del Potro in the following game, but the Argentine served and volleyed to keep the match level.
Federer got into difficulty again serving at 4-4 after two unforced errors handed del Potro 30-40, but he held with two aces and took the set into a tiebreak. Once there, he took the early lead, clinched it 7-5 and was back in the match. A roar went up in Centre Court as the crowd celebrated a deciding set, but little did they know how much drama was still to come.
So began a final act which lasted a staggering 2 hours 43 minutes, as the momentum swung back and forth but neither man could breach the other’s defences despite repeated efforts, Del Potro’s failure to convert two break points in the second game left him flat on the ground in disbelief, and as Federer held firm on his serve despite everything thrown at him, del Potro literally launched himself at a volley in the 17th game to ensure Federer didn’t get another breakpoint.
Federer served to stay in the set five times before he got the first break of the set when trailing 9-9, but to everyone’s disbelief he was broken to love as he served for the match in the next game. Back where he started, Federer served to stay in the match seven more times before he took his chances again in the 35th game and this time he followed through, winning 19-17 as del Potro sent a volley into the net. Federer screamed in relief and the two men hugged warmly at the end of what was the longest final set either had played in his career.
Del Potro was two points from victory four times in the final set, and Federer’s faltering first serve and nervous blips on crucial points betrayed how much he covets the Olympic gold medal as the one thing missing in his illustrious career.
“Obviously being aware… it's the first medal for Switzerland during this Olympics, it was a big thing that carried me through. I mean, just the level of play throughout was amazing, you know, especially from Juan Martin. I've never seen him play so well, to be honest, from start to finish, particularly on grass. He should be very proud of his performance,” said Federer.
“I felt very bad for him at net. It was an emotional hug we sort of gave each other. It's not over for him yet. I hope he can make the turnaround and play a good bronze medal match.”
"It's not an easy situation,” said del Potro. “Someone always has to win these matches and today it was him. In other big matches it has been my turn, such as the US Open but this time it
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