A hurting Rafa Nadal exhibited heroic mental strength to edge American 11th seed Taylor Fritz in a final set tiebreaker during a captivating Wimbledon quarter-final contest on Wednesday to keep alive his quest for a calendar year Grand Slam.
Struggling with an abdominal injury, Nadal appeared close to retiring mid-match but found the will to beat Fritz 3-6 7-5 3-6 7-5 7-6 (10-4) in four hours and 20 minutes to set up a semi-final showdown against Australian maverick Nick Kyrgios.
“The body is generally fine. Of course, in the abdominal (area) something is not going well,” Nadal said on Centre Court.
“I had to find a way to serve a little bit different. For a lot of moments I was thinking maybe I will not be able to finish the match. But I don’t know, the court, the energy is something else, so thanks for that.”
The All England Club, where the Spaniard has won two of his 22 majors, has been the least rewarding place for Nadal but he arrived this year having won the Australian and French Open titles back-to-back for the first time in his career.
A third Wimbledon title and first since 2010 on the manicured lawns and a U.S. Open triumph at Flushing Meadows would see the Mallorcan claim the calendar slam — a feat last achieved in 1969 by Australian great Rod Laver.
Fritz, 12 years younger than the 36-year-old Nadal, dealt a blow to the Spaniard earlier this year in the final of the ATP 1000 event in Indian Wells, putting an end to his 20-match winning run in the season.
But Nadal played that match with a stress fracture in his rib — which later ruled him out of competition for a month.
Nadal arrived for the contest having won all seven quarter-finals he played at Wimbledon and imposed himself against Fritz from the start, wielding his forehand like a sword to break serve in the opening game.
Fritz appeared a bit listless against the left-hander’s heavy groundstrokes but grew into the match as time passed and he converted his fourth breakpoint chance in the sixth game to get the set back on serve.
A couple of costly errors from Nadal gave Fritz another break and the American blitzed through the opening set, winning five straight games from 1-3, 0-30 down.
Nadal took an early lead again in the second set, breaking Fritz’s serve when the American slipped and committed two forehand errors.
But the Spaniard started struggling physically — his head bowed down on court and his hands on his knees — and he gave up the advantage with two double faults in the fifth game.
Nadal soon left the court for a medical time-out for an abdominal issue with his father fervently urging him from the player’s box to put an end to his misery.
But the two-time former Wimbledon champion paid no heed to the requests and returned to the packed showcourt amid huge applause and then broke Fritz in the 12th game to level the match at one set apiece.
Pensive during the changeovers and still struggling on court while serving, Nadal was broken two times as the American bagged the third set comfortably.
But he was not ready to throw in the towel yet. Nadal traded two breaks before claiming the American’s serve a third time to force a deciding fifth set.
With the crowd firmly behind him, Nadal got the break in the seventh game, staring back at his player’s box, but Fritz broke back immediately to force a fitting 10-point deciding tiebreaker.
The Spaniard surged 5-0 ahead in the tiebreaker, then won a 25-shot rally amid raucous applause and converted his second matchpoint with a stinging forehand winner for a memorable win.
“Honestly I enjoy a lot playing these kind of matches in front of all of you guys” Nadal said, addressing the crowd.
“It has been a tough afternoon against a great player. From my personal side it was not an easy match at all. So just very happy to be in that semi-final.”