When Rafael Nadal took on No11 seed Taylor Fritz , the 36-year-old two-time Wimbledon champion did so in the knowledge that the man who was a full 12 years his junior, Taylor Fritz, had ended his 20-match run at the start of 2022.
Nadal began the season in scintillating form to win his 21st Major at the Australian Open after opening with the Melbourne 250 title, and went on to win Acapulco and reach the final of Indian Wells. That was where the young American halted Nadal’s hard-court surge, and where Nadal picked up his first injury problem: a stress-fracture in the rib.
So rather than sweeping through the clay Masters, as he has been his usual habit, he saved his best for the last clay event in the calendar, Roland Garros: Major No22.
Again there were physical problems, pain in his foot that needed treatment before
matches, and then more attention soon after. So Nadal bypassed the grass swing until Wimbledon.
Not so Fritz, who won his second Eastbourne title with perfect timing for his grass campaign. And once at Wimbledon, he did not lose a set in reaching his first Major quarter-final.
But while Fritz had not yet faced a seed, he must have been acutely aware that he may not get a better chance to beat the former champion at Wimbledon than now. The Spaniard had only slowly built up his form as he headed to the quarters, dropping sets in his first two matches—and then there was that Indian Wells triumph.
Only this time, Nadal was 100 percent fit and healthy—until he wasn’t.
Nadal got the first strike, an opening break, only to see it grabbed back almost at once by Fritz. But then with Nadal’s serve looking increasingly below par, the American broke again and served out the set, 6-3.
Indeed, it seemed to happen all at once, with Nadal’s serve and energy diminishing before the eyes. At the changes of ends, he sat doubled forward, glanced time and again to his box with a pained expression, while they gestured back for him to throw in the towel.
When he left court for a medical time out midway through the second set, many expected he would return and shake hands. He did not.
Instead, presumably with the help of painkillers and anti-inflammatories, he carried on. These were, of course, difficult times for Fritz, too. During the intervening minutes, due to serve next, he should have kept himself warm and into his rhythm with some practice serves. Instead, he stood around, unsure what to do, perhaps also expecting a retirement.
He was quickly punished, Nadal stayed in the set, despite his first serve regularly dipping below 100mph, and at the first weakness, he broke Fritz for the set, 7-5.
The American seemed unsure how to deal a killer blow: The serve he was facing was very different from the norm, and there was a growing number of sliced shots on both wings, plus drop shots from Nadal to save his own discomfort and provide no speed to feed from for the big-hitting American. And while Fritz did edge the third set, 6-3, having broken early, he continued to struggle with the tactics he faced.
Should he have pressed harder on Nadal’s backhand wing early and ruthlessly? It is easy to say when your own game’s pace and rhythm has been broken up by such smart tactics. So while Nadal continued to look dismayed in his own performance, and consulted the trainer again after that third set, he still resisted Fritz.
The two exchanged breaks early in the fourth, with the crowd on Centre Court barely able to contain the noise at key moments. But then Nadal broke again, and served out the set, 7-5. It elicited a standing ovation, along with the distinct feeling that Nadal was now the favourite to win.
He was moving better, also serving a little better, maintaining longer rallies, and still using drops, slice and angle to create chances. Fritz, whose serve is his biggest asset, often had Nadal in defensive mode on return but was too often reluctant to come in to finish at the net.
Fritz countered an early break by Nadal in the fifth with one of his strongest service games in a while, and that forced the Spaniard to serve to save the match, twice, but Nadal did just that with perhaps his best serving since the start of the match.
It would go to the ultimate climax after well over four hours, a tie-break, first to 10. Some in the crowd, in the hubbub, did not realise it was not first to seven, and stood for an ovation as Nadal reached that score, but the result had been inevitable since Nadal took a 5-0 lead. As he has so often before, he sealed the win with a signature forehand winner, 7/6(4).
The response was rapturous, and he looked a relieved but exhausted man as he headed to the mic for his interview:
“It was a tough afternoon against a great player… From my personal side, it was not an easy match at all, so I’m just very happy to be in the semi-finals. The body in general is fine. In the abdominal area it is not going well, being honest. I had to find a way to serve a little bit differently, for a lot of moments I was thinking maybe I would not be able to finish the match, but I don’t know. The court, the energy, it helped me.”
It also means that the remarkable Spaniard has never lost in eight quarter-finals at Wimbledon, and from eight semi-finals, he has gone on to reach five finals.
But if he is to reach the title match again, he will face the formidable Nick Kyrgios, who has been taking the tournament by storm, dividing fans right, left and centre, but uniting them in one opinion: His tennis can be the most exciting on tour when he wants it to be.
The Australian beat Cristian Garin, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(5), having already beaten No26 seed Filip Krajinovic and No4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas. So eight years on from his quarter-final run here before he turned 20, he has taken one step further to his first ever Major semi. And the man he beat to reach that Wimbledon quarter-final in 2014? Nadal.
However, there remain many questions about the fitness of the Spaniard, as he revealed soon after the match. Asked about his injury and whether he would be fit to play come Friday, he said:
“I don’t know. Tomorrow I going to have some more tests. But difficult to know. It’s obvious that I am not the kind of player that didn’t have a lot of things in my tennis career, so I am used to have things and I am used to hold pain and to play with problems. Knowing that, when I feel something like I felt, that is because something is not going the proper way in abdominal, no?
“But let’s see. It’s obvious that today is nothing new. I had these feelings for a couple of days. Without a doubt, today was the worst day. Have been an important increase of pain and limitation. And that’s it. I managed to win that match. Let’s see what’s going on tomorrow.”
Then he addressed what solutions there may be to the abdominal strain:
“They can’t do much, honestly, no. Doctor came, give me some anti-inflammatories and analgesic, no? And that’s it. The physio just tried to relax a little bit the muscle there. But it’s difficult. Nothing can be fixed when you have a thing like this. That’s it.
“As I said before, I just wanted to give myself a chance. Not easy to leave the tournament. Not easy to leave Wimbledon, even if the pain was hard. I don’t know. I wanted to finish. Doesn’t matter. Well, I prefer to win, with victory or defeat. That’s what I did. I fighted. Proud about the fighting spirit and the way that I managed to be competitive under those conditions.”
But Nadal versus Kyrgios could become a barnstormer, as summed up by the Aussie:
“Obviously it would be pretty special to play Rafa here. We’ve had some absolute battles on that Centre Court. He’s won one against me, and I‘ve won one against him. Obviously, two completely different personalities. I feel like we respect the hell out of each other, though.
“I feel like that would be a mouth-watering kind of encounter for everyone around the world. That would probably be the most-watched match of all time. I would argue that.”
Now, then, it is a case of watch, wait, and hope.
Source: Sport Review