WIMBLEDON, England – They had fought some four hours and 26 minutes, an epic duel on the fabled grass at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club that ranked as the longest three-set match in Open history. It was an exhausting, thrilling afternoon on Centre Court that neither Roger Federer nor Juan Martin del Potro seemed willing to let end, and somewhere in the midst of the madness, tennis's greatest player allowed himself a small moment of clarity.
"I got a sense," Federer would later say, "that this was something special."
In an Olympics that have been staged at some of England's most historic venues, Federer and del Potro delivered a match for the ages, an exhausting 3-6, 7-6 (5), 19-17 battle that gave the first week of these London Games one of their most memorable moments. Once del Potro scuffled a backhand into the net in the eighth point of the 58th game to finally close the match, Federer looked over to the stadium box holding his wife and raised his arms in triumph. He walked to the net, grabbed the tape with both hands, and hunched over in exhaustion.
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Del Potro would meet him there, and Federer wrapped his Argentine rival in a long hug, the roar of the crowd showering them both. All of Wimbledon seemed to stand as one, giving thanks for the show. Kobe Bryant, among the famous faces dotting the seats, rose from his chair and snapped a photo for his own keepsake.
The enormity of the moment overwhelmed del Potro. His gold-medal dreams in singles gone, he lowered his head, tears welling in his eyes.
"You have reason to be proud," Federer said, his words nearly lost in the din.
"When you lose," del Potro later said, "you can't see the good things."
For now, Federer sees only Sunday. His victory assures Switzerland of its first medal of these Games, and he'll now face Britain's Andy Murray for the gold – a replay of the Wimbledon final from just four weeks ago. Federer claimed his seventh title here then, a victory that left Murray sobbing on the court as he promised his countrymen that he's "getting closer" to delivering his first Grand Slam.
Federer, too, was swept up with emotion that day. His best years, everyone thought, were too far past for him to add another major title. Now, he's reached his final chance to complete the "Golden Slam," the only individual accomplishment missing in his brilliant career. He won a gold medal in doubles in the Beijing Games, but lost in the quarterfinal singles to American James Blake. Wednesday will be his 32nd birthday, and he's done well to stay atop the sport when his biggest rivals – Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Murray – are all at least four years younger. To wait another four years for singles gold at the 2016 Games in Rio would likely surpass the depth of even Federer's greatness.
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No, this was always the year Federer wanted. As soon as he lost in Beijing, he pointed to these Olympics. In London, at Wimbledon, what better place to win gold? Federer was raised here in a sense, and he knows the grounds, the locker room, as if they are his own.
"I think I've been around the block," he said.
Yet Federer also knows these Olympics have brought change to Wimbledon unlike anything he's seen. From his sharp red shirt and headband to the purple backdrops showing the London 2012 logo, the All England Club has been awash in color, its all-white tradition shoved into a corner for the week. This is a tournament for the people, or at least those fortunate enough to purchase a ticket months ago. Federer joked that's he noticed "not that many ties" in the seats, England's nobility replaced by the more common fan, an NBA star or two, and, yes, the occasional infant. Wimbledon restricts children from Centre Court during its own tournament, but the Olympics set no such standards. Federer, father to two young daughters, has noticed.
"I do hear many babies scream from time to time," he said. "Makes me feel right at home."
For the men, the Olympics also require a different level of precision. The matches are a best-of-three rather than the usual best-of-five in Grand Slam events. One, two errors, a couple bad points, separate winning from losing, and that was clear in the eighth game when del Potro broke Federer, then held serve to close out the opening set. Del Potro served first in the match, and he had Federer fighting uphill all afternoon. Nor was Federer at his best. He flubbed one overhead volley into the net and sent a baseline forehand into the 10th row of fans. Over the 366 points, he changed racquets five times. Del Potro used one.
"I was tense; I was nervous," Federer said. "Obviously, I was seeing myself as the loser many times during the match."
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His serve, however, stayed true. Federer equaled the match by winning the second-set tiebreaker, and the marathon was just beginning. As he and del Potro traded game for game, Federer briefly thought of the epic 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68 fight between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut in the 2010 Wimbledon tournament – a match that lasted 11 hours, five minutes spread out over three days, the longest in tennis history.
Said Federer: "I thought, 'We're not even through the first day yet.'"
Federer finally broke del Potro in the 19th game of the third set. He pumped his fist in response, but with a chance to close out the match, lost serve for only the second time all day. Federer also wasted three break points in the 29th game, and still, through the entire breezy afternoon, he never seemed to sweat. He's won much more than he's lost here on Centre Court, and rarely has the moment swallowed him.
"Maybe that's what's helped me over the years," Federer said. "Just being in that situation time and time again, you know, playing for something really, really big, playing for records, history books, big wins, titles, all that stuff. Maybe that's what kept me calm, to be honest."
Del Potro cracked only so slightly, losing serve to go down 18-17. This time, Federer didn't let the opportunity pass. Each time Federer came a point closer to ending the match, the chair umpire had to quiet the crowd.
"Raw-ger! Raw-ger!" the fans roared.
Dressed in a crisp white polo some 45 minutes later, his hair hardly tousled, Federer admitted the match had drained him. He'll have a day to rest and then he'll return on Sunday when the reception likely won't be quite as warm. Yes, he grew up on these grass courts, but Murray is Britain's own. The crowd promises to be raucous, the atmosphere tense.
Going for Olympic gold, hoping to fill one small hole in his brilliant career, Federer will walk into the madness once again. On an afternoon that no one wanted to end, he won the longest match in Olympic history. Yes, he said, this moment was special. Already, he's planning for the next.
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