Tennis

Wimbledon | Nadal willpower pulls him through to semis

Injury-hit Rafa Nadal proved he had the stomach as well as the heart to find a way of keeping his dream of a third Wimbledon title alive.

It has been a tough afternoon against a great player. Credit to Taylor that he has been doing great all season. Personally, for me, it was not an easy match at all so it is great to be in the semi-finals Rafa Nadal

Nadal managed to beat Taylor Fritz 3-6 7-5 3-6 7-5 7-6(10-4) in a 4hr.28min drama-filled Centre Court marathon despite struggling with an abdominal strain for most of it.

The 36-year-old Spaniard, who now faces Australian Nick Kyrgios for a place in the Wimbledon final, proved a wounded raging bull of a competitor as he defied his physical setback against an opponent 12 years his junior.

Nadal has won a record 22 majors and remains on course for a Calendar Grand Slam after winning the Australian and French Opens.

But even the crowd-favourite wondered how he got through this latest test of his extraordinary, bloody-minded ability to come through the toughest of challenges.

That he even considered quitting, having had a medical time out to deal with his strain in the second set.

Nadal, who must be hoping similar problems do not haunt him when he faces Kyrgios, said: “The body in general is fine, but in the abdominal something is not going well, being honest. I had to find a way to serve a little bit different. For a lot of moments I was thinking I would not be able to finish the match but the crowd, the energy, thanks for that.

“I hope to be ready to play Nick. He is a great player on all the surfaces but especially on grass. He’s having a great grass court season. I need to be at 100 percent to keep having chances.

“I honestly enjoy a lot playing these kind of matches (referring to the Fritz epic) in front of you guys (the crowd). I can’t thank you enough for the support.

“It has been a tough afternoon against a great player. Credit to Taylor that he has been doing great all season. Personally, for me, it was not an easy match at all so it is great to be in the semi-finals.”

Rafael Nadal acknowledges the crowds’ support whilst seemingly grimacing in pain

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Nadal can hardly believe he has the opportunity to secure the most coveted title in men’s tennis again after winning the first of his two titles at the All England Club in 2008 (like the defeat of Fritz on 6 July) by beating Roger Federer in arguably the greatest final of them all.

He said: “It happened a long time ago but it is impossible to remember that final with Roger and all the most special moments we shared around the world, and on this court we played special matches in our careers.

“Hard to imagine after that final in 2008 that in 2022 I would be here playing at Wimbledon.”.

Nadal came on court bouncing around like a dervish before warming up. He looked fit and ready to go.

And he seemed to confirm that when he broke Fritz in the opening game of the match.

Eastbourne champion Fritz had the game plan of blasting Nadal off the court with his big serve and limiting the length of rallies which would, it seemed, avoid playing to the second seed’s strengths.

But it soon became apparent that his opponent was not at the top of his game.

In fact, it unravelled as the American broke the Spaniard’s serve twice while he reeled off four straight games to take the set.

Nadal, though, revived and broke Fritz for a 2-0 lead in the second, but it appeared the pattern of the first set was to be repeated as Fritz broke back.

And Nadal’s famed intensity was largely missing. Something was wrong and after saving break points to hold for a 4-3 lead in what the late commentator Dan Maskell referred to as the “vital seventh”, he took a medical timeout.

Rafael Nadal ponders on whether to retire or continue.

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Speculation had it that he was troubled by a problem in his left foot, a degenerative problem linked to blood supply.

Then it was suggested that the 36-year-old had an abdominal strain.

Either way his friend and compatriot Feliciano Lopez said: “I don’t have a good feeling.”

And the body language emanating from the player’s box indicated they might not want their man to continue.

But Nadal is Nadal and when he returned, he went to his racket rather than shake the hand of his opponent and retire.

He hung in there. Kept the rallies short, served within himself and kept his nose in front as the 15,000 crowd willed him on.

And he broke Fritz to take the set as he unleashed a howitzer of a return after a few gentle ones, sealing it with a backhand volley. The stadium erupted.

It must have been difficult for Fritz to mentally deal with having a wounded opponent the other side of the net. Just how injured was Nadal?

Both held serve comfortably at the start of the third. But the set edged towards the American. Fritz only dropped three points in his opening three serves, while managing to break the Spaniard.

And he took the first of two set points as two returns to the baseline pressured an error from Nadal.

Fritz beat an injury-troubled Nadal, who had a fracture rib, at Indian Wells this year.

And it seemed that victory and its circumstances were going to repeat itself.

But Nadal hasn’t secured more Grand Slam titles than anyone for nothing and he broke Fritz at the start of the fourth.

Yet the Mallorcan was clearly hurting from his physical ailments, especially noticeably on his backhand. And it was an error on that side which usually produces big winners which enabled Fritz to break back immediately.

It was clearly frustrating for Nadal – and his fans – that his game was limited by the limitations placed on his body by his injury.

But Fritz had only got back on serve. There remained hopes in the Spaniard’s camp that he could struggle through.

And Nadal underlined his reputation as one of the game’s great problem solvers by breaking the American’s serve for a second time in the set before holding for a 3-1 lead.

But around a third of the serves in the match had been broken and Fritz forced Nadal to concede his again to level the set at 4-4.

It was the seventh time in the match, the most breaks Nadal had suffered in his entire history at Wimbledon which dates back to 2003.

Was it finally going to be the beginning of the end in this battle for the ailing two-time champion who won his last crown on the lawns of SW19 12 years ago?

He was grimacing, clearly struggling, but he was not beaten. And when he broke Fritz yet again for a 6-5 lead the roar must have been heard across London.

And Nadal brought up three set points with an ace before unleashing a forehand winner to level the match. And this time the noise of the raucous gathering inside the 100-year-old venue just might have extended beyond the environs of England’s capital.

A disconsolate Taylor Fritz walks off the court.

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Fritz held serve comfortably while Nadal struggled more but it was even stevens up to another “vital seventh game” of the fifth and final set.

But the Spaniard seemed to be hitting his groundstrokes with greater power and employing an effective spinning backhand drop shot while combining his ability to grind it out. It all paid off when he took the fourth of four break points on the Fritz serve to go 4-3 up.

The hard work, though, had not been done. His resilient opponent immediately broke back and held to edge in front.

Nadal, of course, was not done and he levelled the set with one of his backhand drop shots and then took the match into a first-to-ten-points tiebreak by holding his next serve.

And he raced into a 5-0 lead in it, playing flawless tennis. If he was still troubled by his abdominal problem, he showed no signs of it.

Fritz clawed it back to 5-3 but Nadal was not to be denied and he swept home by sealing the tie-break 10-4.

You had to feel sympathy for Fritz in his first major quarter-final for his heroic effort. But it means America will remain without a winner in the men’s singles at the All-England Club. Their last champion was Pete Sampras in 1999.

Their last finalist was Andy Roddick, who completed his hat-trick of decider losses to Roger Federer in 2009.

And Roddick was the last of his countrymen to claim a major, a success which came at the US Open 19 years ago.

But it was a phenomenal display in the face of adversity by a player with the deserved reputation for having the mental strength and willpower to get the job done. No matter what.

Laura Robson, the former British No.1 and Olympic silver medallist with Andy Murray, said on the BBC: “I think Rafa will adjust (for Kyrgios). He has 48 hours to turn it around and try and find a solution, maybe that is more tape. Again, we don’t know what has gone on because it is one of the difficult parts of the body to handle. He was able to find a way through that.

“I think in the key moments he was still going for it, still going for the big serves and not really caring what will happen with his ab. I think it will be electric on Friday.”

Rafael Nadal waves to his fans as he walks off to prepare for his next match

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

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