Click here to read Steve's entire countdown of the Best Matches of 2018.
This year’s Wimbledon marked the 10th anniversary of Rafael Nadal’s much-celebrated, duel-at-dusk win over Roger Federer in the 2008 final on Centre Court. As the 2018 edition of the tournament began, many pundits and fans looked at the draw, saw that Federer and Nadal were seeded No. 1 and 2 again, and kept their fingers crossed for a rematch.
As we know, that didn’t happen; neither Roger nor Rafa reached the final. But the tournament was fine without The Greatest Match of All Time, Part II, because it still gave us at least one of the best matches of 2018. In its mix of the competitive and the sporting, Nadal’s 7-5, 6-7 (7), 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 quarterfinal win over Juan Martin del Potro, which also finished in dying light on Centre Court, may have been the purest entertainment of the season.
Tennis fans like to speculate about who would win a certain match-up, “if both players are playing their best.” In reality, of course, if one player is hot, the other is usually...not. Playing well, almost by definition, means you’re not letting your opponent play well, too.
But that’s what made the late stages of this match so special and so thrilling. After four hours of ebbs and flows, of lead changes and momentum changes, of bullet winners and desperate gets, of dives across the grass and dives into the bleachers, Rafa and Delpo really were throwing their best at each other.
The match began with Nadal firmly in command. He had won their last two major-tournament meetings, in the semis of the 2017 US Open and the semis at the French Open a month earlier. Each time, Del Potro had hit the ball well to start, only to see his good play inspire better, smarter play from Nadal. This time, rather than come out with guns blazing, Delpo was content to rally with Rafa. Even on a grass court, we know how that’s going to turn out.
Then something odd happened. As this match reached the middle of the second set, the screens on Centre Court showed that Federer had lost on No. 1 Court. Did Rafa realize it, and did new thoughts of winning the title affect him? Either way, he lost his usual initiatve and intensity. Up 6-3 in the second-set tiebreaker, Nadal lost six of the next seven points; score-wise and confidence-wise, Del Potro was in the match for the first time.
After splitting the first two sets, Nadal and Del Potro split the next two as well. But as fun as that was, all of it was just an elaborate set-up for the fifth set.
As that final set progressed, the rallies lengthened. The Spaniard and the Argentine began to push and pull each other up and back and side to side, trying to create openings any way they could. The rallies were reminiscent of the ones that Nadal and Delpo played in their semifinal at the Rio Olympics in 2016: Each player tried to manuever into position for a forehand, while at the same time doing whatever he could to avoid the other guy’s forehand.
The points turned into long, compelling, tactical dances. Sometimes those dances ended with either Nadal or Del Potro flying through the air. At 1-1 in the fifth set, Delpo dove across the court to stab a winning volley; a minute later, Nadal dove into the front row while trying to track down an overhead.
Nadal went up a break and served at 4-3, but the question remained: How do you beat Del Potro when he has stopped missing, and virtually every forehand he touches turns into a winner? Rafa never found the answer in Rio, but he did on this day: His forehand drop shot. Over the course of a 15-minute service game at 4-3, Nadal went to the forehand drop time and again. He hit the shot perfectly, but it almost wasn’t enough. Del Potro tracked one down and flipped it for a winner, and he reached break point three times. But Nadal survived.
At 5-4, he survived again. Del Potro torched another forehand winner to reach 30-30—he would hit 77 winners on the day—but against Nadal you can’t just do the spectacular once; you have to do it again. This time Delpo couldn’t. On the final point, with the light starting to die, Nadal tried another unusual tactic; he followed his serve into net. Del Potro, trying to chase down Rafa’s backhand volley, slipped and fell. As the chair umpire called “Game, set match,” he buried his head in the dirt behind the baseline and stayed there. It was a fitting end. Del Potro, showman in victory and defeat, almost seemed to revel in his own heartbreak.
“I wanted to stay there all night long,” he said later.
Instead, when Nadal walked to his side of the court, Delpo stood up. After four hours and 47 minutes—one minute shy of the 2008 final—there was nothing left for them to do but embrace.
“He’s an amazing player, an amazing opponent,” Nadal said. “In some ways he deserves to win this match, too.”
Del Potro, who played spectacularly, deserved to win. But Nadal, who played resourcefully, deserved it just a little more.