Juan Martin Del Potro broke down on Roger Federer’s shoulder after marathon loss (PHOTO)

Chris Chase
Fourth-Place Medal

Juan Martin Del Potro slowly walked toward Roger Federer after pushing a backhand into the bottom of the net, ending an epic 4-hour, 26-minute Olympic semifinal match, the longest three-setter in the history of men's tennis. In situations like this, the loser almost always gets to the net first and has to wait for the celebrating victor. They can't get off the court soon enough. But Del Potro was in no rush. It was like he didn't want to admit that his gold-medal dream was over.

When he got to the net, Federer opened his arms for a handshake and an embrace. Del Potro, who started saying something to his opponent as he approached the net, appeared to be overcome by the moment and buried his head in Federer's shoulder, while almost certainly whispering words of encouragement and praise.

[ Photos: Olympic tennis style ]

That's just the way Del Potro is. Federer is a gracious winner, just like most men's tennis players of the current generation. He loses with dignity too, even if he's loathe to give those occasional vanquishers much credit. Del Potro, on the other hand, is unparalleled for the elegance of his post-match demeanor, whether it comes in victory or defeat. Even though it's safe to assume that a majority of tennis fans watching the match were rooting for Federer to win, it's doubtful many of them were against Del Potro, such is his reputation.

If Del Potro wasn't crying, he was on the verge of it. When he got back to his chair, he sat down, put a towel over his head and had some tears roll down his cheeks. They tried to walk off the court together -- two men holding their head high after the greatest match in Olympic history -- but the pull of media obligations left Del Potro to walk the final steps alone.

Federer was asked what Del Potro had said during their embrace. "I didn't quite understand," he replied. "It was very emotional."

[ Related: Roger Federer owes Olympic introduction to wife ]

The 17-time Grand Slam champion advanced to his first-ever Olympic final. He'll be playing for the so-called Golden Slam: A career achievement of winning all four majors plus an Olympic gold. His task won't be easy: He'll face the loser of the match between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

"It's big," he said of the moment, while fighting off tears, "it's big."

Juan Martin Del Potro would undoubtedly agree.

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