It was an epic, three-hour three-set semifinal between two world-class players who had recently overcome wrist injuries. In the end, Juan Martin del Potro overwhelmed Rafael Nadal for a spot in Sunday’s Gold Medal Match.
The players traded the first two sets. Coming back from a 3-0 deficit, Nadal eventually rallied to defeat del Potro in the first, 7-5. The second set saw del Potro eek past Nadal, 6-4.
Nadal and del Potro were tied halfway through the third. Del Potro eventually won a break point at 4-4 after Nadal belted a ball just beyond the baseline. The crowd roared: “Del-po! Del-po! Del-po!”
The Spaniard ripped through the next game, tying the score once again at 5-5. Again, the crowd went nuts: “Rafa! Rafa! Rafa!”
It went to a third set tiebreak. Del Potro established a lead, but Nadal hit some amazing shots as he tried to catch up. When Nadal hit a shot long, Del Potro won the tiebreak and the match.
Final score: 5-7, 6-4, 7(7)-6(5).
Del Potro was never supposed to make it this far in the Rio Olympics. Though the Argentine is a former top five player who won the 2009 U.S. Open and a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics, he had just returned to the tennis circuit earlier this year after a longtime absence. Del Potro had suffered multiple wrist injuries since 2010 that have required numerous surgeries; he only reappeared at February’s Delray Beach International Tennis Championships, where he advanced to the semifinals.
As if that weren’t enough, del Potro faced arguably the toughest first-round opponent of the entire draw – Serbia’s World No. 1, Novak Djokovic.
But del Potro downed Djokovic – then Sousa, Daniel and Bautista Agut. Now, only Great Britain’s World No. 2 Andy Murray could potentially stop him from winning gold.
Spain’s Rafael Nadal is often considered one of the best all-time tennis players, and earned the nickname “the King of Clay” after winning nine clay-court French Open tournaments. (He has earned 14 total Grand Slam titles.) In 2008, he won singles gold in Beijing.
But Nadal suffered a crisis of confidence in 2015. He played less aggressively and dropped in the rankings following relatively early exits at major tournaments. It was the first time in a decade he hadn’t won a Grand Slam title.
The losing streak continued into early 2016, when Nadal was knocked out of the first round of the Australian Open. He showed some encouraging signs – winning a Masters title in Monte Carlo – but pulled out of the French Open after suffering a wrist injury.
That injury caused him to miss Wimbledon and kept him from playing professionally for two months. But his performance at the Rio Olympics has far exceeded expectations, winning doubles gold alongside Marc Lopez and now advancing to the singles Bronze Medal Match.
Though the details are not specified, World No. 2 Andy Murray and del Potro will square off Sunday in a Gold Medal Match. Nadal will also play World No. 7 Kei Nishikori on Sunday in the Bronze Medal Match.