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Heroics of beaten Del Potro will never be forgotten

Juan Martin Del Potro looking tired during his grueling semi-final.
by Kate Battersby
Friday 5 July 2013

Outrageous. Charming. Compelling. Audacious. Victorious. In one of the all-time great Wimbledon semi-finals – the longest in history – Juan Martin Del Potro fell short in just one department against Novak Djokovic, and it was the only one he will care about. It won’t matter to the No.8 seed that the quality of his tennis repeatedly left the six-time Grand Slam champion sprawled ignominiously on the turf, or that the crowd loved his indefatigability as he topped comeback with improbable comeback, or that he defied the pain of his injured knee by dominating the long rallies in the match, or that he was the first player to unburden Djokovic of even one set this fortnight, never mind two. He couldn’t make it three, and that is all that will matter to the 6ft 6in Argentinian. Djokovic may have needed four hours and 43 minutes of scorching battle under the baking sun on Centre Court, but he won this unqualified classic 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(2), 6-7(6), 6-3.

 “It is no consolation to me [that it was a classic],” said Del Potro. “I am glad to win hearts but I want to win the match. Of course it’s nice to win friends, but I lost. I was so close to the Wimbledon final. I played my best ever grass court tennis for four-and-a-half hours – better than when I won the US Open – and he played better. I would hit many winners in one point, but always the ball would come back. I know it was something to watch, but I’m sad because I lost. He is very strong. He deserved to win. He is a good guy, a good friend of mine, and I wish him all the best. He will [recover] ok for the final.”

 The 2009 US Open champion produced so much more than many expected. No matter that he looked utterly spent by the end of the first set – there were countless astonishing moments when a roaring ovation avalanched from the stands to greet his play. Among the most miraculous came at 3-3 in the second set, when he made an astonishing sprint to put away a Djokovic drop shot for 0-30. The acclaim was deafening, but as Del Potro walked back to the baseline to receive the next serve he waved his arms at the crowd as if telling them it was worth more than that – and they responded by upping the volume. Two points later Djokovic was unable to do anything with a Del Potro backhand and the Argentinian broke to love, setting him up to level the match at set all. And when he went a break down in the fourth, all but the most demented observers thought the match was done. Instead he turned it around to reach the tie-break, saved two match points and then took it into a decider. Truly, madly, deeply unbelievable stuff.

 But if the crowd admired his determination to fight, they were utterly captivated by the charm of his conduct on court, even at moments of high tension. At 2-2 in the third set, “Delpo” held two break points when his volley failed to get over the net. He picked up the ball and talked to it quietly, telling it what it should have done, and then helpfully dropped it over the net with a smile. And in the third set, with Djokovic pressuring him, Del Potro unleashed a running forehand and his momentum took him all the way around the net to Djokovic’s side of the court – whereupon he strolled up to the Serb to engage in a spot of smiling chitchat before resuming play.

 “I want to say I really enjoyed it, whether I won or lost,” said Del Potro. “It was fantastic to have the crowd cheering for me. They helped me so much to keep going. I really enjoyed watching them. When I was down, I saw them clapping for me and that helped a lot. I think they supported me because they saw my big effort. It’s not easy, and they liked the fight, and that the match was very close. I want to thank them. Of course I am sad now but in a couple of days I will see how big the match was. I think people will remember it for a few years, maybe.”

 A few years. Maybe. Tell him, someone.

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