WIMBLEDON, England — The Grand Slam looked over for Rafael Nadal on Wednesday at Wimbledon, but he kept the quest alive by fighting through an abdominal injury and coming back to beat the rising American star Taylor Fritz, 3-6, 7-5, 3 -6, 7-5, 7-6 (10-4).
A thriller of a quarterfinal, it lasted 4 hours 21 minutes and might have gone quite a bit longer if not for the new rule at Wimbledon this year that requires a first-to-10-point tiebreaker to be played at 6-6 in the fifth set.
Fritz, a big-serving 24-year-old Californian in the midst of a breakthrough season, was on the verge of the most significant win of his career. But for all his power and hustle, he could not hold his two-set-to-one lead and quickly lost command of the decisive tiebreaker, falling behind, 0-5, as Nadal summoned the shotmaking that has made him a 22-time Grand Slam singles champion.
Nadal, playing his first Wimbledon since 2019, is now back in the semifinals, where he will face the Australian Nick Kyrgios, another big server with a much more volatile personality.
“I hope to be ready to play it; that’s the first thing,” Nadal said in his on-court interview. “Nick is a great player in all the surfaces but especially here on grass. He’s having a great grass court season. It’s going to be a big challenge. I need to be at my 100 percent to keep having chances, and that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
Nadal looked like he might have been on the verge of retiring from the match in the second set on Wednesday when he left Center Court for a medical timeout for treatment on what he said was a lower abdominal injury. His service speeds and level of play dipped for some time, and his father, Sebastian; sister, Maria Isabel; and agent, Carlos Costa, all seemed at one stage to be urging him to stop.
Nadal said he considered it. “For a lot of moments, I was thinking maybe I will not be able to finish the match,” he said, speaking to the Center Court crowd. “But, I don’t know, the court, the energy, something else, so yes, thanks for that.”
Nadal has not always been the crowd favorite at Wimbledon, where his longtime rival Roger Federer has long had that role. But Federer is not playing here this year, and Nadal, back after a three-year hiatus, has been hearing little but roars and cheers as he has tried to find grass-court form in a hurry.
He pushed on Wednesday, evened the match at two sets apiece and then went up a break in the fifth to take a 4-3 lead, only to lose his own serve in the next game. But as the match extended past four hours, he regained control and finished off the victory with a classic forehand winner from inside the baseline, complete with his bolo-whip finish behind his left ear.
In Friday’s other men’s semifinal, the No. 1 seed, Novak Djokovic, the three-time defending Wimbledon champion, will face the No. 9 seed, Cameron Norrie, the last British player left in singles.
It has been a Wimbledon full of surprises. Before it began, the All England Club barred Russian and Belarusian players because of the invasion of Ukraine. Three leading players — Matteo Berrettini, Marin Cilic and Roberto Bautista Agut — withdrew after contracting the coronavirus.
But Nadal and Djokovic are still in contention heading down the homestretch.
For the first time in his long career, Nadal won the first two Grand Slam tournaments of the year, the Australian and French Opens. No man has completed a Grand Slam, winning all four major tournaments in the same year, since Rod Laver in 1969, and Nadal kept his bid alive with Laver, now 83, watching from the royal box.
Nadal’s duel with Fritz was a flashback to their match earlier this year in the final of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif.
Fritz won that match, 6-3, 7-6 (5), the biggest title of his career, but both men were far from their fittest. Fritz played after injuring his ankle in the previous round. Nadal played with what turned out to be a stress fracture in one of his ribs, which limited his ability to serve and strike his groundstrokes at full force.
On Wednesday, Fritz arrived with his left thigh taped, and Nadal left Center Court for a medical timeout while leading, 4-3, in the second set and returned to the grass, managing to close out the second set.
He has been wearing a patch on his lower abdomen during the tournament that appeared to be an anti-inflammatory patch. When asked about it before the quarterfinal, he declined to discuss the injury in detail.
“I am a little bit tired to talk about my body,” Nadal said, sounding weary of the subject indeed.
Nadal continued: “But I am in the middle of the tournament, and I have to keep going, no? All respect for the rest of the opponents. I am just trying my best every single day. For the moment, I am healthy enough to keep going and fight for the things that I want.”
So it remains, even if defusing Kyrgios will be quite a challenge.