Injured Rafael Nadal advances to Wimbledon semis with grueling win over Taylor Fritz

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Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates after beating Taylor Fritz of the US in a men's singles quarterfinal match at Wimbledon
Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates after beating Taylor Fritz of the U.S. in a quarterfinal match at Wimbledon. (Kirsty Wigglesworth / Associated Press)

Early in his Wimbledon quarterfinal match Wednesday, Rafael Nadal hobbled off Centre Court and winced in pain. It was clear he had aggravated an abdominal injury that had bothered him all tournament. He asked the umpire for a medical timeout.

Nearby, in the player’s box, his father and sister gestured to him, urging the Spaniard to retire from his match against Taylor Fritz of Rancho Palos Verdes, the same player who had beaten him the in final of the PNB Paribas Open at Indian Wells earlier this year.

So uncomfortable was Nadal that he gave fleeting but serious consideration to calling it a day. He couldn’t bring himself to do it.

“I did it a couple of times in my tennis career,” he said. “Is something that I hate to do it. So I just keep trying, and that's it.”

That — and some medical attention — proved to be enough, as Nadal slogged through the pain to rally to victory in a marathon match, four hours and 21 minutes. He held off the 11th-seeded American 3-6, 7-5, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6, finally winning in a 10-4 tie-break.

It set up a semifinal grudge match with Nick Kyrgios and kept alive Nadal’s hopes for a calendar Grand Slam — he won the Australian and French opens — a feat that hasn’t been accomplished on the men’s side since Rod Laver in 1969.

Laver was watching the thrilling comeback from the royal box, as was fellow Wimbledon champion Stan Smith, soccer star David Beckham and others.

Nadal didn’t receive a miracle cure, instead relying on his legendary tenacity to pull him through.

“Doctor came, give me some anti-inflammatories,” he said. “Well, anti-inflammatories and analgesic, no? And that's it. The physio just tried to relax a little bit the muscle there. But it's difficult. Nothing can be fixed when you have a thing like this.”

Using his wile and experience more than his serve — which mostly was in the mid-90 mph range — he played especially well from the baseline and was surgically precise with his drop shots.

Fritz, looking to become the first American man to reach the Wimbledon semifinals since John Isner in 2018, said he might have taken his foot off the gas slightly when his opponent ran into physical problems in the second set.

“I kind of stopped being as aggressive,” said Fritz, 24, who is 11 years younger than the 22-time Grand Slam champion. “I feel like I let it kind of get to me a little bit. It looked for a bit like he wasn't moving so well for some shots, and then obviously the serve lost some speed.

Taylor Fritz reacts as he plays Spain's Rafael Nadal in a men's singles quarterfinal match at Wimbledon.
Taylor Fritz reacts as he plays Spain's Rafael Nadal in a men's singles quarterfinal match at Wimbledon. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

“But then I feel like towards the end of the second, we played some really long rallies where I was running him side to side and he was making some gets that I don't think a lot of normal players would be getting to.”

Nadal couldn’t guarantee he’ll be able to play in the semifinals Friday.

“I don't know,” he said. “Honestly, I can't give you a clear answer because if I gave you a clear answer and tomorrow another thing happens, I will be a liar.”

If he can play, he will be the overwhelming crowd favorite. He’s scheduled to face the undeniably talented, and undeniably volatile, Kyrgios. The Australian routinely elicits gasps on court with both his brilliant shot-making and with his outbursts at his opponent, his outbursts at the umpire and line judges, the crowd, his team ... and even outbursts at himself.

In beating Chilean Cristian Garin in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (5), the 27-year-old Kyrgios booked a slot in his first semifinal at one of tennis’ four major tournaments.

“I never thought I’d be at a semifinal of a Grand Slam, honestly. I thought my ship had sailed,” said Kyrgios, who is the only unseeded male in the final four and has long played without a coach.

“I would never put that burden on someone,” he said to laughs from spectators. “No one knows my tennis better than I do. I’ve been playing this sport since I was seven.”

He lost nine straight points at the beginning of the match but came back strongly, serving 17 aces to Garin’s two and showing a deft touch at the net with drop volleys that drew applause.

There’s no love lost between Kyrgios and Nadal, who have faced off on court nine times. At a match in Mexico a few years ago, Kyrgios complained to the umpire that Nadal dawdled too long between service points; afterward, the Spaniard said Kyrgios “lacks respect for the public, the rival and towards himself.”

At Wimbledon two years ago, Kyrgios drilled a ball at Nadal’s chest, admitting defiantly that it was deliberate: “I think he can take a ball to the chest, bro. I’m not going to apologize to him at all.”

Kyrgios trails in their head-to-head 3-6. If he manages to close the gap Friday, he will be only the 12th unseeded male player to contest a Wimbledon final. The last one to win the title was Goran Ivanisevic in 2001.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.