As Rafael Nadal found his creaking body mired in the Centre Court trenches after a medical time out and questions over whether he would be able to continue his quarter final match against American Taylor Fritz, serene, placid, Nick Kyrgios, his racquet now spitting fire, was straight-setting Chilean Cristian Garin no more than 100 metres away.
Nadal, hoping to take the third leg of a possible calendar Grand Slam for the first time since Rod Laver did it in 1969, asked for the trainer at 3-3 in the second set having broken early in the first only to lose it 6-3. Slumped on the chair, the former champion pulled up his shirt and pointed to his abdomen.
The player and physio left court for the privacy of the locker room with Nadal emerging minutes later and nobody quite sure whether it was to shake hands with Fritz or pick up his racquet. To the delight of the crowd, the twice-Wimbledon winner, who had been having serious issues with his foot in recent weeks, picked up his Pure Aero Babolat and the Nadal we have come to know indicated, gingerly, death or glory.
Not long after that Kyrgios was standing on court having picked himself off the grass after falling flat on his back after a 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(5) win over Garin. Clasping his head as he lay there, the Australian was taking his time to inhale his first sweet breaths of being in a Grand Slam semi-final.
“I never thought I’d ever be at a semi Grand Slam. I thought that ship had sailed. I thought I might have wasted that little window,” said Krygios, one of the few top players who does not have a coach. “I would never put that burden on someone,” he quipped.
After four hours 21 minutes, Nadal finally ended up where Kyrios was, answering questions as the winner on Centre Court. Now the player with 22 Grand Slams will face the Australian in his first ever Grand Slam semi-final.
It took Kyrgios about half the time it took Nadal to make his tennis world a better place after a first week of railing against imaginary enemies. Fined twice so far by the tournament, he muttered and screamed and swore throughout the match, all of it directed at nobody in particular, or, his compliant entourage in the player’s box.
Garin helped himself to the opening nine points of the first set to establish a two-game lead. That was the high point and although he battled away until the tenth game, his forehand began to fracture and Kyrgios capitalised.
Taking more time than usual to compose himself between points, Kyrgios took the second set with some degree of comfort before Garin missed a series of break points in the third set as 27-year-old turned up the power in the tie-break.
“Just how things can change,” mused Kyrgios. “There was a point where I was almost done with the sport. Obviously I posted this year about the kind of mental state I was in 2019 when I was at the Australian Open with self-harm and suicidal thoughts and stuff. I’m sitting there today after the match. To be a semi-finalist at Wimbledon, it’s a special accomplishment for everyone. But I think especially for me.”
Nadal faced down the big serving of Fritz with his usual mix of élan and power play, the experience of the 36-year-old, who has won the Australian Open and French Open for a record 14 times, in the end telling on the swing points.
When Nadal resumed after medical attention, his power had noticeably fallen and he struggled on his backhand side and on serve, which increasingly dropped in speed. He twice trailed in the match, dropping the third and dolefully shaking his head at the changeover.
His serve had decelerated to 40km/h slower than that of his opponent. Still, he held it to love to take the fourth set 7-5 and reminding just how deep he can go, forced a decider that had looked unlikely so many times.
Nadal had to serve to stay in the match in the fifth set as the clock ticked beyond four hours and a tie-break was triggered. Racing to 5-0 settled some nerves in the stadium and a 25-shot rally, the longest of the match, again lit up the contest with a Nadal forehand finally shutting the door and into his eighth Wimbledon semi-final.
“They (team) told me I need to retire the match. Well, I tried. For me was tough to retired in the middle of the match. Not easy even if I had that idea for such a long time,” he said.
“But in the other hand, I did it a couple of times in my tennis career. Is something that I hate to do it. So I just keep trying, and that’s it. I am used to hold pain and to play with problems. When I feel something like I felt. That is because something is not going the proper way in abdominal.
“I had these feelings for a couple of days. Without a doubt today was the worst day. Have been an important increase of pain and limitation. And that’s it.”
The semi-final line up is set. Novak Djokovic meets British hope Cameron Norrie on a dream run with Nadal, injured or not, facing a resurgent Kyrgios.