In the men’s draw at Wimbledon, it’s the haves and have nevers.
Rafael Nadal will play Novak Djokovic in one semifinal match Friday. It will be the 52nd time they have squared off, more than any players in the history of professional tennis. They account for a combined 29 Grand Slam tournament titles.
The other semifinal match features American John Isner, who has never gotten this far in a major championship, and South Africa’s Kevin Anderson, who played Nadal in the final of last year’s U.S. Open but has yet to win a Grand Slam event.
All four had to battle their way through the quarterfinals Wednesday, as two of the matches went four sets and two went five.
The most dramatic was Nadal’s victory over Juan Martin del Potro, a match that lasted 4 hours 48 minutes, and had tennis insiders calling it the best match of 2018.
Said analyst Patrick McEnroe on ESPN: “We’ll remember this day 50 years from now.”
Two-time Wimbledon winner Nadal prevailed 7-5, 6-7 (7), 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, over the fifth-seeded. Argentine Del Potro fought off four set points in the second-set tiebreaker and won, tying the match one set apiece and setting the tone for a thriller that stretched into the late evening.
The back-and-forth final set lasted 71 minutes.
“Rafa is a fighter,” said Del Potro, who beat Roger Federer this year in the championship at Indian Wells. “Also he has a fantastic game. He deserves to win today and keep winning of course. I’m glad to play in this level against the No. 1 in the world. For me, it’s so good looking forward to the future.
“But I was close to beating him, and I couldn’t because Rafa always has little bit more than the rest of the players on the tour.”
At the conclusion of their match, Del Potro, who had fallen to the ground on the final point, was helped to his feet by Nadal, who hugged him and walked him off the court.
“After an almost five-hour match, I fell down,” Del Potro said. “I wanted to stay there for all night long. But Rafa came to me and we made a big hug, and it was kind of him.”
Now it’s back to the familiar for Nadal, who is 25-26 against Djokovic.
“We’ve always played in important stages, important places,” Nadal said. “Friday is another important match against an opponent that’s one of the most difficult ones you can face.”
The past is the past
Isner, who has advanced to the semifinals of a Grand Slam event for the first time, sees this as a chance to redefine his legacy.
His Wimbledon lore is the longest match in tennis history, an 11-hour 5-minute odyssey against Nicolas Mahut in 2010, when Isner prevailed 70-68 in the fifth set.
“Everyone is going to remember that match in 2010, and rightfully so,” Isner said. “I like to think that since that match, I’ve done a lot of good stuff on the court, performance-wise. But for a lot of people, that’s definitely the lasting image of my career.
“I think if I can keep going further here, I can maybe squash that.”
The elder statesman on the tour, Federer, was eliminated Wednesday by Anderson. Federer, who has won Wimbledon a record eight times, will turn 37 in August.
The remaining players are no kids. Isner is 33, Anderson and Nadal are 32, and Djokovic is 31. A few years back, it was rare for someone older than 30 to win a major championship. Now it’s the norm.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer