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FRS Tennis

Del Potro edges Nadal in instant classic, will face Murray for gold

What a match.

There’s not much more one can add after what was easily the most dramatic men’s match of the year, and probably the most dramatic since at least the 2014 Wimbledon final.

That’s the type of tennis that’s possible in the Olympics with two of the fiercest competitors in the history of the sport, as Juan Martin del Potro won a razor-thin semifinal in Rio over Rafael Nadal, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (5). Total points? 101-99, del Potro, in what was the longest men’s match of the Games.

Nadal looked on course to keep his perfect record intact both in Olympic singles (10-0 prior) and at the 2016 Games (after winning doubles gold with Marc Lopez) after overcoming an early break and picking on the post-wrist surgery del Potro backhand. Nadal broke for a second set as the big Argentine served for a tiebreaker, something of a steal considering del Potro got 72 percent of his potent first serves in, compared to just 52 percent for the Spaniard.

From there, the fatigue of 10 matches in seven days seemed to hit Nadal, as del Potro again took a break lead, holding onto it this time to win the second set.

Well over two hours into the match, the third became a match of attrition and survival. Del Potro dodged trouble on his serve and ended up nosing ahead with a break at 4-4. However, after two sets of subpar returning, Nadal summoned his best return game of the day and broke back at love:

Nadal again showed his clutch chops, climbing out of a 0-40 service created by stellar del Potro play, so they headed to a tiebreaker.

Del Potro jumped out to a 3-0 lead, and the pair traded impressive mini-holds, giving del Potro two match points. Nadal expertly saved the first, but some great defense kept del Potro alive as Nadal served at 5-6, followed by Nadal missing a crosscourt forehand wide on match point.

Del Potro collapsed on his back as Nadal came over to his side for a post-match acknowledgement. Reveling in the best moment of his career in many years, the nearly-28-year-old again dropped to the court:

Del Potro will have a quick turnaround for the final, which is best-of-five against Andy Murray, who dispatched Kei Nishikori 6-1, 6-4. Nishikori again struggled in a big match and Murray found more consistent tennis than in prior rounds. Nishikori got himself into Murray’s final service game, but it was too little, too late after Murray won the point of the tournament:

Nadal and Nishikori will play best-of-three for bronze.

Elsewhere in Rio:

-A bit of consolation for Nadal to go with his doubles gold and possible singles bronze:

— Nadal’s post-match reaction, in part: “This is sport. One day one wins & another day the other wins. Both of us deserved it.”

— Per the NBC broadcast, del Potro became just the second player in the last five years to beat Nadal and Novak Djokovic at the same tournament. For those wondering who the other is (the broadcast didn’t mention), it’s Stan Wawrinka (2014 Australian Open).

— In an all-Czech battle for bronze, Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova topped 2012 silver medalists Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka. Playing through pain, Hlavackova said she likely suffered a broken bone in the semifinals when Martina Hingis hit her in the face with a volley.

— Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram guaranteed themselves a medal with a 6-2, 2-6, [10-3] semifinal mixed doubles win over India’s Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna. They await the other semifinal.

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