Rafael Nadal defies injury to defeat Taylor Fritz in thrilling fifth-set tiebreak

Unbowed and for now unbroken, Rafael Nadal continues to defy the realms of possibility. Although questions of the 36-year-old’s creaking body returned with sharp and shocking focus on Centre Court, as he took a medical timeout and trailed a bold and confident Taylor Fritz by two sets to one, he emerged to extend his winning run at the grand slams to 18 matches and keep hopes of a calendar grand slam alive.

One of the greatest victories of his Wimbledon career was salvaged from the depths. Almost three hours after receiving treatment off-court for an abdominal injury and shaking his head at his box, Nadal stood yelling into the crowds, a man reborn. From the vulnerabilities of the opening exchanges, where Nadal looked beatable, even human, a fifth-set tiebreak demanded the full extent of his resolve to put Fritz away.

Through four rounds at Wimbledon, Nadal had appeared completely serene but he returned to the quarter-final stage to face not only the aggressive return game of a dangerous Fritz but also the lingering worries his weary physique now pose him. Fritz had chances to finish it in the fourth set, as the momentum swung in both directions, but putting away these great champions and the aura they carry on stages like Centre Court remains one of the hardest challenges in sport.

Fritz, the 24-year-old American, was offered a cruel reminder of that, as Nadal forced the fifth and extended the battle into a fourth hour. Although there was not the same sense of inevitability that fuelled Novak Djokovic’s rally from two sets down on Tuesday – Nadal’s condition did not leave such guarantees – the difference between experience and belief looked to be decisive again.

A more ruthless Nadal would have put Fritz away after seizing upon tightness from the American to break at 4-3 in the fifth, but as the Spaniard stood, hands on knees, finishing the task would prove arduous. Fritz broke back, steadied to get to six games, and demanded Nadal to produce another level. He found it in a thrilling deciding tiebreak, bludgeoning the ball with a new release of aggression from the back of the court, to pull off the impossible once again.

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Fritz had defeated Nadal in their previous meeting in the Indian Wells final, with the Spaniard also hampered by injury, and it was the American who made the assured start after adjusting to the kick off the surface on the Nadal forehand. Fritz duelled Nadal with confidence, balancing an aggressive return game with remarkably clean hitting from the baseline. He would only make two unforced errors in the first set and three in the third.

Some of the shots coming off Nadal’s racket were erratic and the edginess ramped on Centre Court as the injury drama unfolded, with the Spaniard leaving the court for a medical timeout. It came as Nadal faced another break point at 3-3 in the second and the signs of discomfort were there as he struggled to an important hold. His breathing appeared heavy but he returned to flash winners off the forehand side and it was followed by improved, steely hitting from the baseline as he went on to break Fritz’s serve and level the match.

Any momentum Nadal wanted to rediscover was quickly taken as Fritz again stepped up his level. Physically, although Nadal’s struggles were not always obvious, there was a hesitation to his paces around the court and Fritz began to take advantage as he rediscovered the viciousness of his return game. A double fault from Nadal resulted in the early Fritz break and the American returned to his immaculate form to serve it out.

Nadal shook his head at his box as he emerged at the start of the fourth. It was a refusal to retire and he broke Fritz’s opening service game for the third time in the match, landing a crosscourt winner into the corner. It was swiftly overturned as Fritz steered a backhand winner on deuce and Nadal sliced into the net on break point. Nadal edged ahead again by staring down Fritz’s serve, before saving break point with consecutive drop shots.

Nadal was undoubtedly freer as he took the fourth, his movement looser at the back of the court. He asked the pressing questions in the seventh game of the decider and although Fritz was saved by a huge net-cord and a bigger serve, Nadal converted on the fourth break point with the combination of a whipped forehand down the line and delicate touch on the volley.

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He stood two games away but would be denied again by Fritz. The energy in Centre Court lifted to a raucous crescendo and Nadal left little doubt of the outcome when he raced into an early lead in the race to 10 points, although there remained the frantic drama of the final exchanges between the leaps of Fritz in a desperate attempt to prevent what was unfolding. He couldn’t. Nadal persevered and although he shot a warning that he may not be fit enough to face Nick Kyrgios in Friday’s semi-final, it would take a fool to rule him out from here.

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