Roger Federer was in tears; Juan Martin Del Potro was inconsolable.
They had just played their hearts out for four hours and 26 minutes.
They had, between them, racked up 115 winners and 35 aces. They had fended off break points by the handful and they had presented the Centre Court crowd with not only the best match of the tournament, but one of the best matches of the year. And yet somebody had to lose.
In the end, with one last backhand into the net, it was Del Potro who drew the short straw, going out 3-6, 7-6, 19-17, and he could hardly bear it. He trudged to the net and sobbed on Federer’s shoulder.
Federer, who was already in dabbing his eyes in sheer relief, hugged him and put his arm round him as they walked to the umpire’s chair.
Federer’s dream of a singles gold medal was still alive but he knew how lousy Del Potro felt – after all, Del Potro had inflicted the same pain on him in the 2009 US Open final.
“To be honest, to lose a match like that hurts a lot. It’s very hard to lose a match like that,” Del Potro said, trying hard to compose himself before the world’s media and before he had to prepare for his mixed doubles quarter-final with Gisela Dulko. “It was a very tough match. Someone has to win and today it was his turn; at the US Open it was my turn. Now I have to try and do my best in doubles for Gisela.”
It came down to who would blink first. That honour went to Del Potro who played a shocker of a service game and was finally broken. It had taken the Fed three hours and 12 minutes to find a way past the big man’s defences but finally – finally – his patience had paid off: he was 10-9 ahead and just had to hold serve to put himself through to the final.
But if Del Potro had blinked, Federer now applied the blindfold. He had skipped through his service games with relative ease until this point but now, just when he needed to batten down the hatches, he dropped his serve to love. For just five minutes the mighty Fed had had one foot in the final but now it was 10-10 and we were back to square one.
By now, people were thumbing through the record books. What was the Olympic record for the longest match? Oh, yes, it was just the other
day: Tsonga against Raonic, three hours and 56 minutes. We broke that barrier and it was still only 15-15. Well what was the longest set Fed had ever played? That was back in 2009 in the Wimbledon final and he won that one 16-14 to break Andy Roddick’s heart and win his 15th grand slam title. Just for good measure, that five set match lasted four hours and 16 minutes; after four hours and 16 minutes of this cracker, we were only at 17-17, 0-15. And this was only a three setter.
For those of a statistical bent, the longest men’s match played over three sets in the Open Era (history in tennis only started in 1968,
clearly) was Rafael Nadal beating Novak Djokovic in the Madrid semi-final in 2009. That took four hours and three minutes. Pah! Call that a marathon? Federer’s third set too two hours and 43 minutes.
There had been times in the match – early on, while Del Potro was winning the first set – when the Swiss had looked unable to handle the power and precision of his rival’s thumping groundstrokes.
Suddenly he looked little and frail beside the 6ft 6ins giant from Tandil and it seemed for all the world as if it was destiny that he would never win an Olympic singles medal. Arnaud Di Pasquale had done for him in the bronze medal play-off in Sydney, Tomas Berdych beat him in Athens and James Blake stopped his run in Beijing. Surely Del Potro was not going to shatter his dreams at the All England Club, too. Not this time. Federer was on a mission to claim a medal and calling on every ounce of the experience of winning 17 grand slam trophies, he hung on and finally got his reward on his second match point. And it was blindingly obvious that reaching the final meant the world to him.
“Emotionally obviously I'm extremely drained from serving against a match so many times, basically being down in the score for the entire match except the one time where I served for it,” Federer said, now dry-eyed and looking remarkably good for a 30-year-old bloke who had just run himself into the ground for an afternoon.
“It was obviously nerve wracking. Obviously being aware, as well, it's the first medal for Switzerland during this Olympics, it was a big thing that carried me through. Just the level of play throughout was amazing, you know, especially from Juan Martin. I've never seen him play so well, to be honest, from start to finish, particularly on grass. He should be very proud of his performance.
“I felt very bad for him at net. It was an emotional hug we sort of gave each other. It's not over for him yet. I hope he can make the turnaround and play a good bronze medal match.
“I definitely got a sense that this was something special we were both going through, with Juan Martin. The deeper we went into the match, the more I thought, Wow, this is so cool to be part of a match like this. for me, yeah, it was somewhat equal to a Grand Slam final for sure. The emotions I felt were as strong as winning a grand slam almost. But of course you have to hopefully save some for Sunday so you can't go overly crazy. But I was very, very touched at the end.”
And just to think, we have all of this to go through again on Sunday for the final. Best get an early night; it is going to be a big weekend.