Roger Federer’s dream of adding a singles Olympic gold medal to his extraordinary list of achievements is still alive but the Wimbledon champion had to win a record-breaking epic against Juan Martin del Potro at Wimbledon to book his place in Saturday's final.
Federer, who will meet the winner of today's later semi-final between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic in the gold medal match, beat Del Potro 3-6, 7-6, 19-17 after four hours and 26 minutes. It was the longest match in Olympic history and the longest men’s three-set match in the Open era.
The match had echoes of Federer’s 2009 Wimbledon final against Andy Roddick, which he won 16-14 in the final set – the previous longest set he had played - after four hours and 16 minutes. A key difference, however, was that this time it was Federer who kept having to serve to stay in the match in the decider. He did so 13 times before Del Potro finally crumbled.
Just four weeks after winning his seventh Wimbledon title and reclaiming the world No 1 ranking, Federer is now just one victory away from making up for his past Olympic disappointments. Although he won a gold medal in the doubles with Stanislas Wawrinka four years ago, he suffered surprising defeats in all three of his previous Olympic appearances in singles, to Arnaud Di Pasquale, Tomas Berdych and James Blake.
“It's a big moment in my life and a big moment for Switzerland because we don't have a medal yet,” Federer said afterwards. “I hope that also inspires other Swiss athletes for the Olympics now.”
Federer, who admitted having been tense and nervous, said the occasion had felt as big as a Grand Slam final. “I definitely got a sense that this was something special we were both going through,” he said. “The deeper we went into the match, the more I thought: ‘Wow, this is so cool to be part of a match like this’.”
The victory provided a measure of revenge following Federer’s defeat by Del Potro in the 2009 US Open final. The 23-year-old Argentinian, who was in tears afterwards, has featured in a number of marathons against the Swiss and was two sets up against him at this year’s French Open until a knee injury scuppered his chances. He has worked hard to reclaim his place in the world’s top 10 after being out of the game for a year with a wrist problem, but in recent times he has repeatedly fallen agonisingly short against the top men.
While Federer’s grass-court prowess has never been in doubt, Del Potro has often struggled on the surface. On this occasion, however, both men struck the ball with great consistency from the baseline and served superbly.
In the first two sets there was only one break of serve, by Del Potro in the eighth game. Federer, who won the second set tie-break 7-5, kept making inroads into Del Potro’s service games in the decider, but the world No 9 performed magnificently under pressure, none more so than at 8-8 and 0-30 down, when he hit a wonderful diving volley at full stretch to win the next point and went on to hold serve.
Federer finally broke to lead 10-9 but, astonishingly, was broken to love in the following game when he served for the match. At 14-14 Del Potro held serve from 0-40 down, but at 17-17 Federer finally broke again. On his first match point in the following game the world No 1 missed an easy volley, but on the second Del Potro netted a backhand.
Federer kissed the Swiss flag on his shirt and gave a warm embrace to his opponent. “I felt for him in a big way because I've been there, as well,” Federer said. “I know how much this meant for him. I told him he should be very proud. I thought he played such a great match.”
Del Potro still has the chance to win a bronze medal tomorrow against the loser of last night’s second semi-final, but he admitted: “To lose this way hurts a lot. It’s very hard to talk about it right now.”
Serena Williams, the Wimbledon champion, will face Maria Sharapova in this afternoon’s women’s final. Williams, who has been in outstanding form all week, crushed Victoria Azarenka, the world No 1, 6-1, 6-2. Sharapova, who has lost to Williams seven times in a row, beat her fellow Russian, Maria Kirilenko, 6-2, 6-3.