WIMBLEDON, England — It was Wednesday evening on Centre Court, and Rafael Nadal was back in the semifinals of Wimbledon after proving once again that his threshold for pain and ability to improvise under duress are far beyond the norm.
Taylor Fritz was in his courtside chair pondering what might have been and sensing that no defeat had ever hurt quite like this one because he felt like breaking into tears.
“I’ve never felt like I could cry after a loss,” said Fritz, the 24-year-old rising American star who will rise no higher at the All England Club this year after Nadal’s victory, 3-6, 7-5, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (10-4).
A thriller of a quarterfinal, it lasted 4 hours 21 minutes and might have gone quite a bit longer if not for the new rule at Wimbledon this year that requires a first-to-10-point tiebreaker to be played at 6-6 in the fifth set. The English soccer stalwart David Beckham, watching rapt from the royal box, might have preferred penalty kicks.
Fritz, a thunderous server who also can pound his groundstrokes, upset Nadal to win the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in March in a match Fritz played with an injured ankle and Nadal played with a stress fracture in his rib cage.
Fritz was on the verge of a more significant breakthrough on Wednesday and won, in the end, just as many points as Nadal did (168 apiece). But for all Fritz’s power and hustle, he could not win the points that mattered most; he could not capitalize on Nadal’s abdominal injury or on a two-set-to-one lead. He quickly lost command of the decisive tiebreaker, falling behind, 0-5, as Nadal summoned the shotmaking and guile that have made him a 22-time Grand Slam singles champion.
“Rafa did what Rafa does: He figures stuff out,” said Paul Annacone, one of Fritz’s coaches. “He figures out what he’s got on the day, and he never makes it easy for the opponent. That’s why he’s thus far the most accomplished guy in the history of tennis.”
Nadal, still chasing the Grand Slam at age 36, will face the Australian Nick Kyrgios, another big server with a much more volatile personality, on Friday for a place in the men’s singles final.
In Friday’s other semifinal, the No. 1 seed, Novak Djokovic, the three-time defending Wimbledon champion, will face the No. 9 seed, Cameron Norrie, the last British player left in singles.
The question is whether the second-seeded Nadal will be healthy enough to play. Nadal said he came close to retiring from the match after aggravating the lower abdominal injury midway through the opening set. But even without a full-strength serve and even with his father and sister urging him from the stands to retire, Nadal, as so often, found the solutions he needed to prevail even if he did not look a great deal more upbeat than Fritz when he arrived for a sotto voce news conference.
“It’s obvious that today is nothing new,” he said of the injury. “I had these feelings for a couple of days. Without a doubt, today was the worst day. There has been an important increase of pain and limitation. And that’s it. I managed to win that match. Let’s see what’s going on tomorrow.”
He said he would undergo more tests on Thursday before deciding whether he would return to Centre Court to face Kyrgios, who upset him on that same patch of grass in their first meeting in 2014 in the round of 16. Nadal has won six of their eight other matches, including a testy second-round duel at Wimbledon in 2019 in which Kyrgios deliberately hit full-cut passing shots at Nadal’s body and felt no need to apologize.
“Nick is a great player in all the surfaces but especially here on grass,” Nadal said. “He’s having a great grass-court season. It’s going to be a big challenge. I need to be at my 100 percent to keep having chances, and that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
Nadal is clearly tired of talking about his body, weary of dealing with the injuries that have just kept coming during his intermittently sensational season.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” Nadal said.
For the first time in his long career, Nadal won the first two Grand Slam tournaments of the season, the Australian and French Opens. No man has completed a Grand Slam, winning all four major tournaments in the same year, since Rod Laver in 1969, but Nadal kept his bid alive with Laver, 83, watching from the royal box.
Nadal managed it by settling for a much slower serve that, according to Fritz, gave him more trouble than Nadal’s full-force delivery. Nadal walked gingerly off the court for a medical timeout with a 4-3 lead in the second set and said he received anti-inflammatory medication and treatment from a physiotherapist.
“For all the first set and all the second and a big part of the third, the problem was not only the serve but that if I served I could feel the pain for the rest of the point and could not play it normally,” he explained. “It took a while to figure it out.” His average serve speeds on Wednesday were 107 miles per hour for first serves and 94 miles per hour for second serves compared with 115 and 100 in the previous round. But once he adjusted, he said he no longer had lingering discomfort during the exchanges and that he felt uninhibited on his groundstrokes.
“For a lot of moments, I was thinking maybe I will not be able to finish the match,” he said, speaking to the Centre Court crowd. “But, I don’t know, the court, the energy, something else, so yes, thanks for that.”
Nadal has not always been the crowd favorite at Wimbledon, where his longtime rival Roger Federer has long enjoyed that role. But Federer, 40, is not playing here this year, and Nadal, back for the first time since 2019, has been hearing plenty of positive feedback as he tries to win Wimbledon for the third time.
He pushed on Wednesday, evened the match at two sets apiece and then went up a break in the fifth to take a 4-3 lead, only to lose his own serve in the next game. But as the match extended past four hours, he regained control and finished off the victory with a classic forehand winner from inside the baseline, complete with his bolo-whip finish behind his left ear.
It has been a Wimbledon full of surprises. Before it began, the All England Club barred Russian and Belarusian players because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Three leading players — Matteo Berrettini, Marin Cilic and Roberto Bautista Agut — withdrew after contracting the coronavirus.
But Nadal and Djokovic are still in contention heading down the stretch, and so is Simona Halep, a former No. 1 who won Wimbledon in 2019 and is in resurgent form with the help of her new coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. Halep, a Romanian, will face Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan in the semifinals on Thursday. Ons Jabeur, the No. 3 seed from Tunisia, will play Tatjana Maria, a German ranked No. 103 who has been the biggest surprise of the women’s tournament.
Last year, Fritz came close to surprising Djokovic before losing in five sets in the third round of the Australian Open in a match in which, strange but true, Djokovic suffered an abdominal injury. The scenario against Nadal must have felt agonizingly familiar, and he said his biggest regret was not pushing Nadal harder the three times Nadal served to stay in the match.
“In the end, he was just really, really, really good,” Fritz said. “Certain parts of the match I felt like maybe I kind of just needed to come up with more, do more. I left a lot kind of up to him, and he delivered.”