Taylor Fritz, six foot tall with skyrocketing American confidence, tried his best to bury a wounded legend here on Wednesday, but 36-year-old Rafael Nadal didn’t hold back — against his concerned father’s advice — and won. over five alternating sets to reach his eighth Wimbledon semifinal. He is a win against Nick Kyrgios away from the final – possibly a 60th time against Novak Djokovic – and the chance to win his third grand slam title on the spin. What a year he has had.
Fritz almost had him in the fourth set but couldn’t finish it and Nadal made him pay and won 3-6, 7-5, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4) in 4 hours 20 minutes , the fourth longest game of the championships.
“I really enjoy playing these kinds of games,” said Nadal. “It was a tough afternoon against a great player. It wasn’t easy at all, I’m just really happy to be in the semi-finals. The belly is not going well. I had to find a way to serve a little differently. For a moment I thought I might not be able to finish the game.”
Nadal said he would have some more tests. “I’m used to pain. It’s nothing new,” he added. “But today was without a doubt the worst day.”
Relying on his long, strong right arm to do battle with two aces — 129 mph wide and 132 mph in the middle to deal with 58 free points that had helped him reach the quarter-finals — Fritz still found a breakdown in the first quarter. Nadal’s opening ace – 120 mph in the middle – contributed to his relatively modest tournament tally of 28, though he put some serious revs on his top-spun forehand.
However, when Fritz broke into the sixth game to get back on service, there was a palpable mood swing. Fritz, 24, came to the championships in good shape and won Eastbourne. He also had new memories of beating Nadal when they last met, in the Indian Wells final. But memories are for scrapbooks. And each of them had something different to read in their past.
The Spaniard, who many believed would never win another Wimbledon title after his last 12 years ago, had the impetus to reach an eighth semi-final here (and 38th in all majors), not to mention the tantalizing prospect of matching Rod Laver’s calendar. 1969 grand slam. Those ambitions took a hit in the eighth game when a double foul gave him 3-5, and Fritz punished him with two more aces to take the set. Nobody saw that coming.
Nadal quickly regrouped and capitalized on Fritz’s indiscipline to lead 2-0 in the second inning. But the Californian lived up to his pre-match claim that he would attack unreservedly, forcing some lazy mistakes by Nadal to return to parity.
This was now an impossibly difficult game to read as neither player struck a convincing rhythm. It would stay that way pretty much until the end.
Nadal has been working hard to hold on to 4-3 before leaving the court for attention to either the abdominal injury he refuses to talk about or his chronically sore left foot – or both. His father, Sebastián, gestured frantically from the box to stop. Nadal ignored him.
Fritz, who has hit 210 km/h this tournament, greeted his return with a few attempts under 100 km/h, but Nadal couldn’t do much even with those lollipops. Something still wasn’t right.
Silence fell across Center Court as Nadal went through the motions, struggling to serve at over 100 mph. Then out of nowhere he conjured a pause of exquisite subtlety to level up on a set apiece. Nobody saw that coming.
His mini-revival hit an uneasy bump, though, when a double-fault led to a dropped service game at the start of the third, and we were back in the land of serial uncertainty. Fritz held his serve with a little more ease than Nadal held his. It was no surprise when the San Diego man after 2 hours and 10 minutes had another loose shot for Nadal to lead 2-1.
Then another twist or two. Nadal broke early in the fourth set, holding a 4-2 lead, but a forehand too much to give the advantage back at 4-4. After squandering a break point that would have put him ahead, Nadal served to stay in the championship after nearly three hours of grueling battle at 4-5, sealing it with his fourth ace of the match.
Smelling blood, he conjured a breaking point on Fritz’s serve and forced one last long backhand from his desperate foe. A fifth ace gave him three set points; a devastating forehand brought them into a deciding set.
Fritz held the love, Nadal less convincingly, and the fifth went on to serve until the crucial seventh game. After a long, bouncing battle, the Spanish master threw himself into Fritz’s slowest second serve of the match and found a drop shot from the sky to break the deadlock.
But he threw it in the trash on his own serve, Fritz held on and Nadal matched him, pushing them into the 10-point tiebreaker after 4 hours and 8 minutes. He led 5-1 on the first half change, won 7-3 in a 25-shot rally, the longest of the game, and finished the show with a routine forehand into the corner.