He had botched four set points in the second-set tie-break, the third of them in the most disastrous style as he dumped both his serves into the net. He seemed to be paying for it as Juan Martin del Potro – one of very few men with an even more destructive forehand than his own – soon moved ahead by a 2-1 margin in sets.
But Nadal was not going to fade out of the picture. With the ball jumping up off this rock-hard ground into his strike zone, he surely knows that this could be the best opportunity he ever has to lift a third Wimbledon title.
And so he tweaked his tactics, subtly but significantly. He started coming forward and using the delicate hand skills that we forget about when he is blasting huge groundstrokes from the back of the court. One sliced, inside-out drop shot, played early in the final set, was such a feat of prestidigitation that you wondered if Nadal was a member of the Magic Circle.
It felt like a shame that this superb contest was probably not picking up the TV viewership that it deserved. The players could have functioned as an advert for washing powder, so long did they spend on the ground. In some cases this was the result of a diving volley, but more often it was the giraffe-like del Potro who lost his footing on the turf. He even finished the final point of the match in a prone position as Nadal rushed in to put away a volley winner and close out his 7-5, 6-7, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 win.
The statistics show how Nadal moved forward more as the match wore on. He played 24 points in the first two sets, and 25 in the final set alone.
He also hit ten drop-shot winners – many of which had del Potro toppling over as he dashed headlong towards the net – to zero from his opponent. Nadal might have taken a shellacking from the del Potro forehand, but he was the more varied, bold and imaginative player.
Yesterday’s quarter-final line-up looked juicy from the start, but few would have expected such excitement. The Big Two had beaten everyone so comfortably on their way to the last eight that it seemed as if they were destined for a repeat of the 2008 final here. Roger against Rafa again, only with a few more wrinkles on each side.
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For a moment last night, this logic was turned on its head, and it seemed as if both grandees of the game were heading home. In the middle of this match, Nadal was simply overpowered by the might of his 6ft 6in opponent. But the mental arm-wrestle was a different matter.
Nadal is widely regarded as the best player under pressure in the history of this great game. He might have experienced a few palpitations, but as the shadows lengthened on Centre Court, he solved the problems in front of him. In the end, he found the key and turned it in the lock.
“It was a very emotional match,” said Nadal, who also made some friends in the front row at one stage when he went chasing after a del Potro smash and was forced to vault the courtside barrier.
“Great quality of tennis, last set has some amazing points. I am sorry for Juan-Martin, he is an amazing opponent, amazing player. In some way he deserved the victory also today. Last year I lost a match 15-13 in the fifth set so anything can happen.” On this day of all days, there was no knowing what might come next.