LONDON – When Roger Federer finally, at last, finished off Juan Martin del Potro in the longest tennis match in Olympics history, he raised his hands in joyous celebration and then leaned on the net in exhaustion.
This was a three-set marathon, 4 hours and 26 minutes of Federer and Del Potro going shot for shot, comeback for comeback, last-drop-of-sweat effort for last-drop-of-sweat effort. In the end, the 30-year-old great from Switzerland outlasted the young Argentine 3-6, 7-6 , 19-17 in this singles semifinal.
Olympic tennis is best of three sets, not five like the professional ranks, yet it lacked nothing. The final, furious set lasted 2:43. The match featured 366 points, 115 winners, and one tired embrace at the end.
"It was an emotional hug we shared at the net," Federer said. "Emotionally I'm extremely drained. I guess I'll feel it tomorrow … I was very, very touched at the end."
It was marked by relentless play, passionate rallies, and the kind of all-out effort that you might expect if the Wimbledon major championship and millions in prize money were on line.
Yet it wasn't.
Federer has earned more money in his career than any other tennis player ever (an estimated $73 million, which doesn't count endorsements). Friday he played as if his last meal was on the line.
Well, he played for a shot at a gold medal, which apparently still means everything even to those who already have seemingly everything. By advancing to Sunday's final against Andy Murray, a straight-set over Novak Djokovic, Federer secured at least silver and guaranteed Switzerland its first medal of the Games.
"I couldn't be happier, it's a big moment in my life and a big moment for Switzerland," he said. "I was aware it's the first medal for Switzerland and [it was] a big thing that carried me throughout."
There are times the Olympics take regular people and make them into rich, world-famous athletes. And there are times the Olympics take rich, world-famous athletes and make them into regular people.
One look around the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on Friday was proof that even these hugely successful professional players, ones who compete almost weekly against each other on the world stage and once a year at this historic venue, take this pursuit of gold with great passion.
[ Olympics crush photos: Maria Kirilenko and Maria Sharpova ]
The Federer-Del Potro battle was just part of it. Over on Court One, Russia's Maria Sharapova celebrated her victory over countrywoman Maria Kirilenko in a single's semifinal by pumping her fist, covering her mouth in surprise, and waving to the crowd with glee.
Meanwhile, Serena Williams waited out Federer to clear Center Court before beating Victoria Azarenka in her own semifinal and then preparing for a doubles match just 40 minutes later alongside her sister Venus.
And Del Potro couldn't afford to be tired. He had a mixed doubles match to race off to, the pursuit of a medal continued on.
Federer has won Wimbledon seven times, including a couple weeks ago when he beat Murray in the final. So too did Serena Williams, claiming her fifth title here, adding to her estimated $38 million in career earnings, tops among women. Shaparpova won it 2004 and has earned an estimated $22 million in prizes and tens of millions more in endorsements.
None of it seems to matter now. None of them have a gold medal.
"I think at the Olympics there is so much pride in doing that for your country," Sharapova said. "Especially in Russia, it is just such a huge part of our culture. It's all about watching the Olympics and opening ceremonies and being happy about bringing the nation together.
"As athletes, I think it's just one of our goals to make it there and compete there," she continued. "It's just the passion we have representing our country."
It's a universal sentiment. The Williams sisters are still just a couple kids from Los Angeles who watched the Olympics growing up. Now they have a chance to win gold together, and no matter how many titles you have, who wouldn't want that experience? So they've been bouncing around over here like teenage dreamers.
There remains something distasteful about the International Olympic Committee, with its billions in assets and its executives who live lavish lifestyles, making big bucks on the star power of athletes they don't pay. There may be no prize money, but there is plenty of money.
Yet the athletes appear to have little problem with it. This is part of the deal. Maybe it's what makes it special.
"It's is a chance only one in four years," Sharapova said.
So they give up on the money and go for the glory; for themselves, for their country, for the experience of standing on a podium and getting a gold necklace. The grandstands here featured Bill Gates, Kobe Bryant, and Alex Ovechkin. There are the Olympic rings on the net. And the players could ditch the all whites of Wimbledon and wear their nations' colors.
All the majors in the world couldn't duplicate this glorious, sun-splashed day, with all these high-priced pros killing themselves across the courts, diving, reaching, and celebrating like losing isn't an option.
Judging by Del Potro hanging his head in his hands after this long, bitter loss, it isn't.
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