The gasp that rang across the Centre Court crowd midway through the opening set confirmed the dream rematch was off.
Locked in battle with Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro, the world’s No.1 player, Rafael Nadal, would not be distracted.
A man as fastidious about routine – the drink bottles with labels aligned, the little shoe-shuffles to avoid stepping on the chalk – Nadal was not letting a result beamed on to the Centre Court scoreboard enter his thoughts.
Healthy and in form, this was shaping as his best shot in years at closing in on a third Wimbledon title.
This was a campaign not about sentiment for rematches. It mattered not to him which three players he would have to beat from here to go all the way so long as he got there.
As it stands, none may end up being more difficult for the Spaniard this Wimbledon than Del Potro.
“You enjoy, because at the end of the day we are playing in one of the best courts in our sport, against a great opponent, with full crowd, fifth set, great level of tennis. Of course, you have to enjoy,” Nadal said.
Kevin Anderson had just shown No.1 seed Roger Federer the door in a No.1 Court thriller when Nadal eked out the opening set. It ensured there would be no repeat, a decade on, of the 2008 classic between the two greats.
“I was playing tennis. I was not thinking much about what was going on in the other court,” Nadal said.
“I am not that good to have the chance to think about all the things going on outside. I had a tough work having Juan Martin in front.”
For a time, Del Potro looked as though he would ensure Nadal and Federer fell on the same day at a Grand Slam for the first time.
After four hours and 48 minutes, including a fifth set which Andy Murray – co-commentator for the match – deemed one of the best he had seen, Nadal beat fading light and a tired but gallant opponent to book his place in the last four.
“I am very happy the way that I survived a lot of important points in that fifth set,” Nadal said.
“I think I did a lot of things well. I went to the net. In general terms, have been a positive match. Only negative thing is I played almost five hours, and I had the chance maybe to play less winning that second set.
“For the rest of the things, great news, semi-finals of Wimbledon again. Great match, emotional match for both of us and for the fans, too. Great feelings.”
The pair had met 15 times and the Spaniard led 10-5. They had battled in two of the past three Grand Slam semi-finals, with both going Nadal’s way. This would be their first five-set encounter and arguably the toughest Wimbledon quarter-final Nadal had fought.
As del Potro stepped up to serve for the second set, the Spaniard took advantage of a double fault and broke with a forehand curled down the line to level at 5-5.
It looked to be the turning point for the No.2 seed to take a two-set lead when he surged to 6-3 in the subsequent tie-break.
Clinging on for dear life, however, the Argentine saved three set points and a fourth with a monster first serve. After two challenges went Nadal’s way, Del Potro finally got some luck when a netcord forehand drew the error from his opponent as he snatched the set to level the match.
Having surged to a two sets to one lead, a couple of tumbles on the turf proved costly for the Argentine as he dropped serve at 2-2 in the fourth.
Nadal, growing in strength, had assumed the role of aggressor once more as he drew a slowing Del Potro about the court to force the deciding set.
The 6ft 6in Argentine pulled off a spectacular diving volley winner to lift the crowd into a frenzy, but as the four-hour mark ticked byit appeared only a matter of time before Nadal would pounce against a battle-weary opponent.
Turning increasingly to the drop shot, the Spaniard survived a 12-minute struggle to hold serve with a curling forehand on the run. He sealed a showdown with Novak Djokovic on a routine backhand volley as the Argentine slipped one last time at the baseline.
“The crowd at the end was amazing with me. With both, I mean,” Del Potro said. “I think I played really good tennis today. But Rafa is Rafa, you know. Sometimes you play your best tennis and it’s not enough to beat him.
“But I’m glad with my tournament. Physically I’m OK. That give me confidence to keep going in the future.”
As the pair embraced in the dull twilight to a raucous ovation, Murray signed off his first day’s commentating duties.
“A big thanks to Juan and Rafa for putting on such a good show.”
Roll on the Rafa and Novak show.
Source: Dan Imhoff|| Wimbledon