The Olympics were the tennis tournament of the year for many reasons, but access to YouTube highlights wasn’t one of them. The Games are, among other things, one giant proprietary right. Which is a shame on a day like today, when we could use a clip to tell the whole story of my third most memorable match of 2012: Roger Federer’s epic, emotional, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 19-17 win over Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals. At four hours and 26 minutes, it was the longest three-set match in the sport's history.
NBC does have its own set of highlights, which you can find here. As for embedding, we’re lucky enough to have the last 11 minutes or so, in two parts, and seemingly from two different living rooms, above. The first eight come with their own one-person rooting section, while the last three may or may not be accompanied by a soundtrack from a different sporting event entirely. Never mind. Watching Federer and del Potro stagger each other with haymakers, like two fighters who have lasted way past the 15th round, will quickly remind you of what it felt like on the most intense afternoon of tennis this year.
—We don’t see any of it, but this was del Potro’s match for most of the first two sets. He opened by winning a 23-shot rally in the first game and kept firing from there. It was the sixth time these two had played in 2012 alone, and while del Potro hadn’t won any of those matches, he had come up with his best showing the month before, when he led two sets to love at Roland Garros. It seemed, as he plowed his way through a first set win and reached break points at both 2-2 and 4-4 in the second on Centre Court, that this was going to be his day to break the streak. Federer, who made his share of mistakes, especially around the net, and was just two of 13 on break point chances, believed it was a distinct possibility himself.
“I was seeing myself as the loser many times during the match,” Federer said afterward.
—Federer fought his way back and escaped in the second-set tiebreaker, with a little help from del Potro. I can remember thinking, after the Argentine muffed an easy forehand when he had a lead in the breaker, that he wasn’t quite mentally ready to finish Federer off, on this giant stage, just yet.
When Federer closed the second set with a customary ace out wide in the ad court and the crowd roared, I thought del Potro was toast. He had struggled to compete against Federer all season. In Indian Wells, he had let a missed call send him over the edge, and in Paris he had disappeared completely for two sets. This time, he wasn't toast. This time, inspired by the chance to win a medal for his country, the big man was valiant. The clip above begins with del Potro coming back from 0-40, and then 0-30, to hold. While he eventually lost that day, it felt like a step forward for him. He would go on to win his final two matches of the year against Federer, and if he returns to the Grand Slam winner’s circle in 2013, I think we’ll be able to look back at, ironically, this loss as a turning point for him.
—We pick up the match after more than three-and-a-half hours of play. By this point, strategic subtlety is mostly out the window and both guys are hauling off and scrambling with everything they have left. It’s amazing, as tired as they must have been, how many times they find the lines and how many of those big shots they get back. While del Potro kept coming back from deficits, Federer had to deal with continually serving to stay in the match. Both men are flying on Olympian inspiration, especially when Federer slides far to his right for a squash shot that leads to the crucial service break in the next to last game. That was a clay-court move, but you can’t say this grass slowed the action down much.
—“Go Federer.” I’m just going to be thankful that this sign wasn't prefaced with a “Shhh.”
—As great as the tennis is, this match, along with a few others in 2012, finally convinced me that last-set tiebreakers should be the rule at all of the majors (except for the finals of those events). I’m happy that the Olympics has made that rule change for Rio in 2016. Yes, you get memorable epics when you go into extra innings, and, along with his 2009 Wimbledon win over Andy Roddick, this match will go down as a signature moment in Federer’s career in large part because of the crazy scoreline. In general, though, matches don’t become more dramatic after the score is 6-6 in the deciding set; they just keep going, often to the exasperation of fans. Six-all is the perfect spot to close it, and a perfect spot for both players to walk out together on the two-person high-wire known as a tiebreaker.
—There’s no question, of course, that this match was special. Even Kobe Bryant, with a game to play the following day, stuck around until the end. While Federer didn’t end up winning the gold, the fact that he was able, in his fourth Games, to pull out a classic like this was fitting. He deserved to have a legendary Olympic win, and he was obviously moved to have earned Switzerland the first of its four medals of the Games.
You can tell how special, and how draining, it was for both of them when they meet at the net. Their nuzzle of consolation and congratulation was the most emotional handshake that I can remember from 2012.
“I felt for him in a big way," Federer said when it was finally over, “because I’ve been there as well.”
Federer and del Potro, two athletes competing for something bigger than themselves for four hours, two athletes coming together when it was over. That was the Olympics.