There are few things more delightful in sports than when a virtually unstoppable force runs into an immovable object. It’s the epitome of the battle between a great offence and a great defence, and that is hardly limited to tennis.
And that’s precisely the type of matchup that a packed house at Centre Court was treated to during the first gentlemen’s semifinal of the 2013 Wimbledon Championships.
For nearly five hours, Argentine 8th seed Juan Martin del Potro mustered every ounce of his famous firepower to upset top seed, Novak Djokovic. But for the five hours, the Serb’s incredible defence held firm – or at least firm enough – against the assault.
The paths that the men’s careers were on leading up to their Friday afternoon five-set classic could not have been more different. Del Potro was contesting his first major semifinal since his triumph at the U.S. Open in 2009, while Djokovic had not lost before the semifinals of a major in over three years.
The match would have initially appeared like an appetizer for the British crowd, who were awaiting the main course of Andy Murray later that day. But it wasn’t long before they realized that they were seeing something special.
You can watch an extended highlight reel of the match here:
Both men served well enough to hold serve throughout most of the opening set, but as he has done so many times to so many great players, Djokovic eventually broke through. Serving at 5-6, del Potro managed to get to a 30 love lead, but that’s when the Serb dug in. Djokovic produced a stunning backhand winner up the line on the dead run to earn his first point of the game, and then followed that up by winning the next two points to make a set point. Del Potro then overhit on an inside out forehand, and the then world number 1 was a set to the good.
Undaunted, the Argentine found the range on his considerable firepower in the second set.
Djokovic earned two break points in the sixth game, but del Potro saved them both, the first with a beautiful stab volley winner, the second with a big first serve. After eventually holding, the Argentine unleashed his forehand in the next game to great effect and earned his first break of the afternoon. Del Potro went on to keep his next two service games with relative ease to even the contest.
Both men managed to threaten the other’s serve in the early stages of the third set, but neither was able to break. Serving at 4-5, 15-30, the Argentine managed to avoid facing set points thanks to two incredible rallies that saw him pummeling the ball and running Djokovic for seemingly hundreds of metres. Del Potro then faced an even stiffer test in his next service game when Djokovic earned love-40. But again del Potro managed to escape the competition, saving the last of the trio of set points with a monstrous inside-in forehand winner.
Djokovic earned the first mini-break of the ensuing tiebreak after del Potro missed a smash, and the Serb would go on to win the last six points of the set in a row to win it 7-2, as the Argentine slowly lumbered to his chair with his shirt pulled over his face.
Del Potro was on the comeback trail from one of his many medical absences over the years, and he seemed to be tiring under the afternoon sun. But while he indeed appeared tired in between points, the former U.S. Open champion’s effort during them never wavered. He fought back from 0-30 in his opening service game of the fourth set, but the Serb eventually claimed what, at the time, looked to be the crucial break in the seventh game.
However, once again del Potro refused to fold. Only minutes later, the 8th seed earned a break chance of his own and seized the opportunity with a backhand winner that brought the Centre Court crowd to its feet.
The men then proceeded to hold until they arrived at another breaker.
Again it was Djokovic who grabbed the first advantage, earning a 3-1 lead after an impeccably constructed point stemming from a signature return of serve right at del Potro’s feet. The Serb carried his advantage to the changeover but then no further, as del Potro got back on serve by thumping a few massive forehand winners on consecutive points to earn four all. Once again though Djokovic inched in front after a stumble by the Argentine allowed the world number 1 to approach the net and come up with a stab volley winner after his opponent’s desperate running pass attempt.
Serving at 6-4, Djokovic had two match points on his plate. Del Potro saved the first after a 25-shot rally that was so exhausting and absorbing that the Argentine didn’t even give chase after Djokovic’s final defensive lob attempt – instead he simply waved his arms and seemed to pray for the ball to fly beyond the baseline, which it did. Del Potro saved the second match point with another forehand winner and then earned his own off a backhand winner. The Argentine then took a page out of Djokovic’s playbook by ripping a monstrous backhand return to brand the match a five-set classic officially.
As the men battled on and the shadows across the worn lawns grew longer, it once again appeared that del Potro’s physical fitness might be an issue. The Argentine had injured his knee earlier in the fortnight, but his resolve remained firm. The Argentine earned the first breakpoint of the fifth set with Djokovic serving at 2-all but was unable to convert. The Serb then struck a killer blow with del Potro serving at 3-4, 15-all. The world number 1 finished a 22-shot rally by cruelly running his opponent ragged with a drop shot/lob combination that left the Argentine doubled over and gasping for breath.
Minutes later, Djokovic was serving for a spot in Sunday’s final. Del Potro’s incredible will showed itself one last time as he earned a breakpoint, but the Serb snuffed it out with a delicate volley off of a tricky net cord and soon after finished the epic contest with a backhand winner.
“It was one of the best matches I’ve been a part of,” Djokovic said. “It was a very high level of tennis, and this is what I expected. I was ready for five sets, and I managed to stay tough at the end.”
Just as the men came into the match on very different paths, so too did they exit. Djokovic went on to lose to Andy Murray in straight sets in the final but won back-to-back titles in the two years following. Del Potro has since continued to struggle with injuries. The Argentine has played at Wimbledon only once since 2013 and has not reached another major semifinal.
“I was so close to being in the finals here at Wimbledon, and I think I played excellent tennis,” del Potro said. “I played the best tennis I ever played on grass, but it was not enough.”
In a battle that still stands as the longest semifinal in the long history of Wimbledon, the force of del Potro proved to be, just barely, stoppable eventually.