WIMBLEDON, England – It was Wednesday night on Center Court and Rafael Nadal was back in the Wimbledon semifinals after proving once again that his pain threshold and ability to improvise under duress are well above the norm.
Taylor Fritz sat in his chair off the pitch, contemplating what could have been, and realizing that losing had never hurt like this, because he wanted to burst into tears.
“I never felt like I could cry after losing,” said Fritz, the 24-year-old rising American star, who will not climb higher this year at the All England Club after Nadal’s 3-6, 7-5 win , 3 -6, 7-5, 7-6 (10-4).
A thriller of a quarter final, it lasted 4 hours 21 minutes and might have lasted a bit longer had it not been for the new rule at Wimbledon this year which dictates a tie-break from the 1st point to the 10th point when the score is 6 :6 must be played fifth set. English soccer star David Beckham, watching tensely from the king’s box, might have preferred penalties.
Fritz, a thunderous server who can also hammer his groundstrokes, angered Nadal when he won the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, in March in a match Fritz played with an injured ankle and Nadal with a stress fracture to his rib cage.
Fritz was on the verge of a clearer breakthrough on Wednesday and ended up taking as many points as Nadal (168 apiece). But with all his strength and haste, Fritz could not win the points that mattered most; He failed to capitalize on either Nadal’s abdominal injury or a two-set-to-one lead. He quickly lost control of the crucial tiebreaker, falling 5-0 as Nadal summoned the shooting and cunning that have made him a 22-time Grand Slam singles champion.
“Rafa did what Rafa does: he finds things out,” said Paul Annacone, one of Fritz’s coaches. “He calculates what he has a day and never makes it easy for the opponent. That’s why he’s the most accomplished guy in the history of tennis so far.”
Nadal, who is still chasing the Grand Slam at 36, will face Australian Nick Kyrgios, another big server with a much more volatile personality, for a spot in the men’s singles final on Friday.
In Friday’s other semi-final, No. 1 Novak Djokovic, the three-time defending Wimbledon champion, meets No. 9 Cameron Norrie, the last British player left in singles.
The question is whether second seed Nadal will be healthy enough to play. Nadal said he was close to withdrawing from the match after aggravating his abdominal injury midway through the opening set. But even without a full-power serve, and even when his father and sister urged him to retire from the stands, Nadal, as so often, found the solutions he needed to prevail, even if he didn’t look much more optimistic about it than Fritz He came to a sotto voce press conference.
“It’s obvious that today is nothing new,” he said of the injury. “I had these feelings for a few days. Without a doubt, today was the worst day. There was a marked increase in pain and disability. And that’s it. I managed to win this match. Let’s see what’s going on tomorrow.”
He said he would undergo further tests on Thursday before deciding whether to return to center court to face Kyrgios, who upset him in their first meeting in 2014 in the round of 16 on the same pitch. Nadal has won six of his eight other matches, including an irritated second-round clash at Wimbledon in 2019, in which Kyrgios deliberately scored a direct hit on Nadal’s body and saw no need to apologize.
“Nick is a great player on all surfaces but especially here on grass,” said Nadal. “He’s having a great grass season. It’s going to be a big challenge. I have to be at 100 percent to keep having chances and I’ll try to do that.”
Nadal is clearly tired of talking about his body, tired of dealing with the injuries that have plagued his at times sensational season.
“If it’s not one, it’s the other,” Nadal said.
For the first time in his long career, Nadal won the first two Grand Slam tournaments of the season, the Australian Open and the French Open. No man has completed a Grand Slam and won all four major tournaments in the same year since Rod Laver in 1969, but Nadal kept his bid alive while Laver, 83, watched from the royal box.
Nadal managed it by settling for a much slower serve, which Fritz said gave him more trouble than Nadal’s full force. Nadal cautiously walked off for a medical time-out with a 4-3 lead in the second set and said he was on anti-inflammatory drugs and treatment from a physiotherapist.
“For the whole first set and all of the second and a big part of the third, the problem wasn’t just the serve, but that when I serve, I could feel the pain for the rest of the point and I couldn’t play normally,” he explained . “It took me a while to figure it out.” His average serve speed on Wednesday was 107 mph for the first serve and 94 mph for the second serve, compared to 115 and 100 on the previous round. But once he got used to it, he said he no longer had any lingering discomfort during the exchange and that he felt uninhibited on his groundstrokes.
“For a lot of moments I thought maybe I can’t finish the game,” he told the crowd on Center Court. “But I don’t know, the court, the energy, something else, so yeah, thanks for that.”
Nadal hasn’t always been the crowd’s favorite at Wimbledon, where his longtime rival Roger Federer has long enjoyed the role. But Federer, 40, is not playing here this year and Nadal, who is back for the first time since 2019, has heard plenty of positive feedback as he attempts to win Wimbledon for a third time.
He pushed on Wednesday, leveling the match at two sets apiece, then conceding a break in the fifth to go 4-3 up, only to lose his own serve in the next game. But as the match went past four hours, he regained control and wrapped up the win with a classic forehand winner from inside the baseline, complete with his bolo whip finish behind his left ear.
It was a Wimbledon full of surprises. Before it started, the All England Club banned Russian and Belarusian players because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Three leading players – Matteo Berrettini, Marin Cilic and Roberto Bautista Agut – withdrew after contracting the coronavirus.
But Nadal and Djokovic are still in contention, as is Simona Halep, a former No.1 who won Wimbledon in 2019 and is back on form with the help of her new coach Patrick Mouratoglou. Romania’s Halep meets Elena Rybakina from Kazakhstan in Thursday’s semifinals. Ons Jabeur, number 3 from Tunisia, plays against Tatjana Maria, a German number 103 who was the biggest upset of the women’s tournament.
Last year Fritz almost surprised Djokovic before losing in five sets in the third round of the Australian Open in a match in which, oddly but true, Djokovic suffered an abdominal injury. The scenario against Nadal must have felt tantalizingly familiar and he said his biggest regret was not pushing Nadal harder when Nadal served three times to stay in the match.
“In the end he was just really, really, really good,” said Fritz. “There were certain parts of the game where I felt like I just had to come up with more, do more. I left a lot to him and he delivered.”