Taylor Fritz, 6ft 5in of towering American self-belief, did his best to bury a wounded legend here on Wednesday, but the 36-year-old Rafael Nadal would not stay down – against the advice of his worried father – and prevailed over five fluctuating sets to reach his eighth Wimbledon semi-final. He is a win against Nick Kyrgios away from the final – possibly for a 60th time against Novak Djokovic – and the chance to win his third grand slam title on the spin. What a year he’s had.
Fritz almost had him in the fourth set but could not finish it and Nadal made him pay, winning 3-6, 7-5, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4) in 4hr 20min, the fourth-longest match of the championships.
“I enjoy a lot playing these kind of matches,” Nadal said. “It was a tough afternoon against a great player. It was not easy at all, I’m just very happy to be in the semi-finals. The abdominal is not going well. I had to find a way to serve a little bit different. For a moment I thought I might not be able to finish the match.”
Nadal said he was going to have some more tests. “I am used to pain. It’s nothing new,” he added. “But without doubt today was the worst day.”
Relying on his long, strong right arm to get into the fight with two aces – 129mph wide and 132mph down the middle to go with 58 free points that had helped him to enter the quarter-finals – Fritz still found himself a break down inside the first quarter of an hour. Nadal’s opening ace – 120mph down the middle – added to his relatively modest tournament total of 28, although he was putting serious revs on his top-spun forehand.
However, when Fritz broke in the sixth game to get back on serve, there was a palpable mood shift. Fritz, 24, came to the championships in good form, winning Eastbourne. He had fresh recollections also of defeating Nadal when they last met, in the Indian Wells final. But memories are for scrapbooks. And each of them had something different to read into their past.
The Spaniard, who many thought would never win another Wimbledon title after his last one 12 years ago, had the incentive of reaching an eighth semi-final here (and 38th in all majors), not to mention the tantalizing prospect of matching Rod Laver’s calendar grand slam of 1969. Those ambitions took a hit in the eighth game, when a double fault put him 3-5 down, and Fritz punished him with two more aces to take the set. Nobody saw that coming.
Nadal regrouped quickly, cashing in on Fritz’s indiscipline to go 2-0 up in the second. But the Californian lived up to his pre-match assertion that he would attack without reservation, forcing a couple of lazy errors from Nadal to get back to parity.
This was now an impossibly difficult match to read, as neither player hit a convincing rhythm. It would stay that way pretty much all the way to the end.
Nadal made hard work of it to hold for 4-3 before leaving court for attention to either the abdominal injury he refuses to talk about or his chronically painful left foot – or both. His father, Sebastián, motioned frantically from the player’s box to quit. Nadal ignored him.
Fritz, who has hit 136mph this tournament, greeted his return with a couple of sub-100mph efforts, but Nadal was unable to do much with even those lollipops. Something was still not right.
A hush fell over Center Court as Nadal went through the motions, struggling to serve at more than 100mph. Then, from nowhere, I have conjured a break of exquisite subtlety to level at a set piece. Nobody saw that coming.
His mini-revival hit an uncomfortable bump when a double fault led to a dropped service game at the start of the third, however, and we were back in the land of serial uncertainty. Fritz was holding his serve with marginally more ease than Nadal was hanging on to his. It was no surprise when the man from San Diego forced another loose shot from Nadal to go 2-1 up after 2hr 10min.
Then, a further twist or two. Nadal broke early in the fourth set and held to lead 4-2, but overcooked a forehand to hand back the advantage at 4-4. Having squandered a break point that would have set him up, Nadal served to stay in the championships after nearly three hours of fretful struggle at 4-5, sealing it with his fourth ace of the match.
Smelling blood, he conjured break point on Fritz’s serve and forced a final backhand long from his despairing foe. A fifth ace delivered him three set points; a withering forehand took them into a deciding set.
Fritz held to love, Nadal less convincingly, and the fifth went with serve until the pivotal seventh game. After a long, see-sawing struggle, the Spanish master pounced on Fritz’s slowest second serve of the match, then found a drop shot from heaven to break the deadlock.
But he threw it in the bin on his own serve, Fritz held and Nadal matched him, landing them up in the 10-point tie-break after 4hr 8min. He led 5-1 at the first change of ends, prevailed for 7-3 in a 25-shot rally, the longest of the match, and closed the show with a routine forehand into the corner.