Sometimes even the best tennis can be overwhelmed by drama, and there were moments in the mesmerising match between Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro when it appeared the dominant tone was of injuries and annoyances. In the end, however, it will be the class of Nadal that sticks in the mind, and del Potro’s missed opportunities that stick in his throat, as Nadal won in four sets, 7-6 (6), 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, to progress to the quarterfinals.
Both men have been affected by injuries to various extents throughout their career, so it’s understandable that spectators, pundits and fans of both men suffered paroxysms of anxiety at one stage or another. After feeling something in his foot early in the first set, Nadal seemed to jam it awkwardly. After del Potro saved set point on his serve at 5-6, Nadal was given medical treatment during a time-out before the first-set tiebreak. Del Potro, on the other hand, took a bad fall at 2-2 in the third set, had to be helped up to his feet and left the court for a medical timeout of his own. The score stood at one injury all and, although Nadal’s footwork did seem to suffer at times—especially when moving out to the forehand side or vertically up and down the court—neither man was visibly impeded after the first few anxious points.
Still, as we are endlessly reminded, the test of a ‘man,’ or rather champion, is handling adversity rather than avoiding it—and on that front Nadal excelled, as he tends to do. Del Potro did not. Furious with the umpire—seemingly about the timing of Nadal’s medical time-out—del Potro couldn’t hold on to the minibreak he earned on the first point and played tentatively throughout, failing to attack his injured opponent. A double-fault at 6-7 to give away the first set sealed a woeful tiebreak performance, and although he recovered to break Nadal’s serve and take the second set 6-3, it was hard as a spectator to shake the sense that he should have been up two sets. Another miserable tiebreak in the third set, the worst I have seen him play since returning from injury, put del Potro in an almost impossible position, and he showed no real signs of getting himself out of it in the fourth set.
With so much fluctuating momentum, so many dramatic reversals, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the tennis was excellent. Del Potro served and volleyed with a frequency and success that belies his frequent stereotyping as a one-dimensional player, while Nadal was ... well, Nadal, hitting 61 winners to 16 unforced errors, out-acing del Potro and achieving success 30 out of the 37 times he came to net. Most impressive of all was the way, unmeasured by statistics, that he lifted his game when he was threatened on serve and in the third-set tiebreak. Moving on to the quarterfinals he has, unlike del Potro, nothing to regret.