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Federer Wins Epic Semifinal, Taking More Than Four Hours To Do So

Roger Federer of Switzerland returns a shot against Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina in their Olympic semifinal played at Wimbledon. Federer won the match, which took more than 4 hours to play.
Clive Brunskill
Getty Images
Roger Federer of Switzerland returns a shot against Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina in their Olympic semifinal played at Wimbledon. Federer won the match, which took more than 4 hours to play.

Swiss tennis star Roger Federer kept his Olympic dream alive Friday, when he won the longest tennis singles match in Olympic history. He defeated Juan Del Potro of Argentina, in a semifinal played on Wimbledon's Centre Court.

The final score of the three-set match, which lasted more than four hours and 20 minutes, was 3-6, 7-6, 19-17. Federer will next face the winner of Friday's semifinal between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic in the final.

Federer, the winner of a record 17 Grand Slam events, is searching for his first individual Olympic gold medal. And at Wimbledon, where he has enjoyed record success during his long career, the crowd gasped and cheered at every turn near the record-setting match's end.

In the third and final set, Federer had a chance to serve for an 11-9 victory, but Del Potro held firm to break his serve, using an array of deep and angled shots — as well as a crucial mis-hit by Federer, who sent a ball skyrocketing out of bounds to end one exchange.

That happened hours after Del Potro sprang out to an early lead, taking the first set, 6-3 — a crucial step in winning men's Olympic tennis matches, which are decided in a best-of-three format.

But Federer remained aggressive, charging the net to put pressure on Del Potro. And he used his serve to bail himself out of trouble — including reeling off four straight points when he was in danger of being broken to lose the third set, and the match, at 13-11.

Nerves seemed to get the better of both players at crucial moments, as they dumped shots that could have been volley-ending winners into the net, or sent them long.

Still, the game brought many rousing points, with both players dusting the grass court's chalk with their shots, and hitting creative and difficult winners, despite strong winds that sometimes made the ball's flight unpredictable.

When the wind took one of Federer's shots hostage — before depositing the ball out of bounds — all the Swiss could do was smile, as if a normally reliable friend had just done something crazy. Then he prepared to play yet another point.

As the 34th game of the third set was nearing its end, an infant in the stands created quite a stir, belting out loud, squalling cries that suggested the match had overrun its meal schedule. But the players didn't seem distracted, as they contested every point.

Del Potro has defeated Federer before — notably, in the 2009 U.S. Open. And on Friday, the Argentine played as if he remembered that match well. In fact, he says he takes the rackets from that match with him everywhere he goes.

Federer recently regained his former world No. 1 ranking by winning this summer's Wimbledon tournament on this same court.

By contrast, Del Potro is seeking a return to form, after finally recovering from a nagging wrist injury that required surgery in 2010. He seems destined to return to the top rankings, as his quick forehand and assertive second serve gave Federer trouble for much of Friday's match.

The London Games almost certainly represent the final chance at Olympic glory for Federer, who will turn 31 years old next week.

Despite his dominating career on the pro circuit, Federer has never won an individual Olympic medal. In the Beijing 2008 Games, he won gold as part of a doubles team.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.