© Ella Ling

Has a three-setter ever been so compelling?


Five thoughts on Roger Federer’s victory over Juan Martin Del Potro in the semi-finals of the Olympics.

Has the ‘shortened’ version of the game, the supposedly ‘fast-food’, snacky three-setter, ever been so compelling and so satisfying? The traditionalist – and he’s probably not at the All England Club this week, scared off by the mauve, the Pet Shop Boys and Federer’s red T-shirts – will tell you that only matches played over the best of five sets will truly test someone’s skill, resolve, emotions and concentration. This was the match to change that view. To think that one TV analyst had introduced the third and final set as a ‘shoot-out’ – Federer and Del Potro needed 36 games, and almost two and three quarter hours, in that set alone, to decide who would go through to play the gold medal match on Sunday.

Who can recall a more intriguing three-setter? This was the longest three-setter of the modern era, with a running time of almost four and a half hours, and filled with high-quality tennis. We had Federer breaking for a 10-9 lead, and serving for a place in the final, only to then be broken to love. We had Federer laughing at one of his shanked groundstrokes. We had Del Potro throwing himself across the service box for one of the finest diving volleys you will ever see on Centre Court. We had a screaming baby. Almost as soon as Federer broke Del Potro and then served out the set 19-17, he became all pink-eyed, his voice breaking during a post-match interview. The other day, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beat Milos Raonic with a 25-23 final set. Three-setters have never been so fashionable. A pity perhaps that Federer’s next appearance, the gold medal match on Sunday, will be the best of five sets.

This match had already done much to show how deeply tennis players care about the Olympics, and then, just in case you still weren’t convinced, Federer kissed the Swiss flag on his shirt and started to look teary. What motivates a man who, to borrow Maria Sharapova’s phrase about her own wealth, has enought money to feed the great-grandchildren? A gold medal does. He already has one in doubles. But by winning Sunday’s match he would complete the career grand slam, a feat which only two men – Andre Agassi and Rafael Nadal – have previously achieved. Realistically, this is Federer’s last chance to win a gold – he will be almost 35 when tennis rolls into Rio. He also has the rare opportunity – the Olympics won’t be back at the All England Club for a while – to do the Wimbledon double. Much to play for this weekend.

Ignore those who say that there should have been a tiebreak in place at 6-6 – tennis is part of the entertainment industry, and this was entertaining. And with a day off before the final, Federer will have some time to recover. Just a note on the length of this match: Federer and Del Potro play quickly – had Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic had the same scoreline, a 19-17 final set, they would have been out on the grass for at least another hour.

Had Del Potro won this match, the result would undoubtedly have relaunched his career, but perhaps a defeat could have the same effect. This was probably the best tennis that he had played since the 2009 US Open final, when he defeated Federer in the final to win his first grand slam.

Like Federer,¬†Maria Sharapova¬†is a match away from going from converting a career grand slam into a career golden slam, but, with Federer’s match sucking up all the oxygen, Sharapova’s progress almost went unnoticed. She defeated Kirilenko in the meeting of the Russians Marias.